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The Curious Case of Phineas Gage and Others Like Him

By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
Associate Editor

The Curious Case of Phineas Gage and Others Like HimIf you’ve ever taken an introductory psychology class, then you probably know the story of Phineas Gage, the 25-year-old railroad worker whose personality dramatically changed after a rod pierced his skull.

Gage lost portions of his frontal lobe and went from being a kind and mild-mannered man to rude and unrestrained.

On September 21, 1848, The Boston Post reported on the incident. The article was called “Horrible Accident” and said:

As Phineas P. Gage, a foreman on the railroad in Cavendish, was yesterday engaged in tamping for a blast, the powder exploded, carrying an instrument through his head an inch in length, which he was using at the time. The iron entered on the side of his face, shattering the upper jaw, and passing back of the left eye, and out at the top of the head.

2 Comments to
The Curious Case of Phineas Gage and Others Like Him

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  1. Maybe it was an ascribed status thing? His doctor told him his personality was justifiably malfunctioning, so he embraced the lifestyle! But since we can’t directly compare the individuals involved we could assume they just had completely different injuries. I’ve also heard rumors that Gage spent the remainder of his life living away from people and spending all his free time in the company of animals. Is there any validity to that?

    “The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed.” It may be a gross oversimplification or exaggeration, but it sure makes for an interesting idea.

  2. The brain is intricate and miraculous. A slight variation in an injury could produce very different results.

    The quality of original brain function between the men before the injury could also vary a great deal.

    I went to the bodies’ exhibit and was able to look at actual brain arteries. They were so small, they reminded me of lace. To think that people are often handicapped or killed by the blockage of such tiny arteries left me in awe.

    I have had four strokes as verified by an MRI and MRA. Each stroke affected a different part of the brain and I was affected differently. One affected my balance, one was diffuse, but seems to have affected by organizational skills, one affected my motor control on the right side of my body and one affected my language. At one point I was completely unable to access language. I could understand neither the verbal or written word. Nor could I speak. I quickly recovered these abilities which is inexplicable. I do however notice very subtle differences in my abilities and energy levels.

    My doctor attributes my recovery to my mental and physical condition before the strokes. I remember trying to find a way around the roadblocks quickly after the strokes and trying to access different parts of my brain.

    When I think about the differences in a stroke and an accident, several things stand out. I would think that the trauma from an accident would be spread over a larger portion of the brain. The victims were young and most likely healthy. We are not comparing the exact same injury. How can the results be the same? One of my clots split. The results were dramatically different. One piece affected language and the other motor control. Given that the injuries were quite different even though both affected the frontal lobe, I do not think that they can be compared.

    Given my experience, where I do feel less inhibited than before the strokes, I can extrapolate that information to conclude that it is likely that a brain injury could cause disinhibition. How much of it could be due to the brain injury itself and how much to a psychological trauma, it is impossible to know.

  3. Hi all,

    This is psychology and not so simple as to just say this guy became changed personality and this guy didn’t. All of the patients in the military were.. in the military. You don’t have as much wiggle room to be an a-hole there. We also don’t know what the soldiers were like before their injuries.

    Uneducated in this field spurred only by a personal tragedy to find out why my ex went from a loving, caring mate of more then a decade to a mean spirited, self absorbed alcoholic nearly over night after taking antidepressants this is what I have come to believe and understand.

    The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the physical manifestation of what Freud referred to as the “Super Ego” or the “Ego Ideal”. It is this list of behaviors that tempers the “Id’s” desire to simply take or do what it wants directly. It applies consequences through learned memories to the Id’s request. The Id says, “take that toy” the Super Ego holds the memory of “last time we did that we got punished. Instead why don’t we ask for it, or wait till it’s available.” I believe that lobotomies did physically and Antidepressants do chemically exactly what this spike did you Mr. Gage. They too have unpredictable and various responses.

    With all the different perspectives on this, I can’t believe that as of yet, I haven’t found any professionals who have tried to connect the dots in this way.

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