- Phineas Gage is considered to be Patient Zero for traumatic brain injury.
- The story of Gage at the time was that his damaged brain rendered him a different, monstrous person. This wasn’t true.
- Recent studies demonstrate that an injured brain can see an increase in connection in areas associated with touch and learning.
Phineas Gage was a railroad foreman in the 19th century. In 1848, while blasting through rock as part of the construction of the Rutland Railroad line in Vermont, Gage set an explosive — setting explosives in those days included using a tamping iron to pack the material into the rock — and then turned away, his attention temporarily diverted by his men. The explosion went off and the tamping iron drove itself through his jaw, behind his left eye, and out through the top of his skull. He survived.
Why is his survival notable today? Was it because the injury transformed him into a completely different person than the person he was before? J.M. Harlow — the physician who treated Gage in the aftermath of the accident — later described Gage so:—
“He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires. . . . A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. . . His mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage.'”
And though that description made Gage’s case famous, it perhaps did a disservice to how Gage actually responded, which arguably made the particulars of Gage’s case all the more interesting.
As summarized by Slate, regarding the the accident:
“The rod’s momentum threw Gage backward, and he landed hard. Amazingly, he claimed he never lost consciousness. He merely twitched a few times on the ground, and was talking and walking again within minutes. He felt steady enough to climb into an oxcart, and, after someone grabbed the reins and giddy-upped, he sat upright for the entire mile-long trip into Cavendish. At the hotel where he was lodging, he settled into a chair on the porch and chatted with passersby. The first doctor to arrive could see, even from his carriage, a volcano of upturned bone jutting out of Gage’s scalp. Gage greeted the doctor by angling his head and deadpanning, ‘Here’s business enough for you.'”
This was not a child. This was not a man of ‘animal passions.’ This was not a profane man. This was someone who had the presence of mind to make a wry and quiet joke.
And not only did Gage survive, but his story survived, too. Gage’s case has continued to hold scientific interest and attention over the years, […]