The Mind-Blowing Legend of Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage (1823-1860)

See this fellow here, and the large bar he’s holding? That’s Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who lived in a time when people had awesome names. And his 6kg tamping iron, who remained unnamed, gave him the damaged left eye he proudly displays. The story of how it did is one of the most famous cases in neuroscience, and helped us to understand the idea of localisation of function in the brain.


In 1848, Gage was workin’ on the railroad all the live long day, blasting sections out of a rock face to make way for a tunnel. Deep holes would be drilled into the rock, and Gage would push explosive powder down using the aforementioned bar. Unfortunately for Phineas, the explosives prematurely detonated, forcing the bar through Gage’s head with intense force – the bar landed some 25m behind Gage.

Gage's injury


Don’t freak out – Gage was fine. But that was the really strange thing – he was FINE. The guy just had this “abrupt and intrusive visitor” IN HIS BRAIN, then got up, presumably cursed at OSH for not yet existing, then walked to catch a horse and cart for a 1.2km journey into town. When he saw a doctor, he famously uttered, “Here is business enough for you”. He received the necessary medical attention, even lapsing into a coma for just over a week, but within just TWO months, he was up and about and wondering where his sudden urge for body piercing had came from.

Here’s where it gets interesting – it turned out he wasn’t fine after all. Before the accident, Gage was known as a relatively mild-mannered individual, with proper manners and normal mental capacity. However, after the accident, he was described as ‘no longer Gage’; he had a marked change in behaviour, where he was now unable to follow through plans, and had become rude and belligerent. It must be noted that while there is exaggeration in the degree of the change in character of Gage, it was still noticeable. Gage lived for another 12 years, moving about and working as a stagecoach in Chile, before suffering violent convulsions and dying in 1860.


The case of Phineas Gage got psychiatrists and neuroscientists in a flurry, with some parties rushing to claim it supported the “science” of phrenology. In fact, it underpinned the modern understanding of the prefrontal cortex, which is the anterior-most portion of the frontal lobe of the brain – the area that was most damaged in Gage by the accident. The prefrontal cortex is now known to be the primary location of the brain that deals with ‘executive function’ – decision making, personality, weighing up choices, and planning motor movements in the early stages. This was consistent with the case of Gage – the regions of his brain that were necessary to keep him alive and sentient weren’t damaged – only his behaviour and personality were affected.
However, it is a fundamental of neuroscience that localisation of function in the brain is a complicated thing – it is not always as simple as ‘remove the Broca’s area and suddenly I can’t do words good no more’. The brain is an intensely convoluted organ in more ways than one, and while some regions are generally associated with certain functions and roles (such as the occipital lobe’s association with vision), others are all over the place.


This accident eerily foreshadowed a famous medical procedure of the mid 20th century: the lobotomy, where the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the frontal lobe are severed. This was used extensively in psychotic and insane patients across the USA in an attempt to stop them from babbling all this nonsense and get back to dancing the Charleston like everyone else. This created a somewhat zombie-like individual, as they are sedated to the point that they are conscious-but-not-really-sentient corpses. It also makes a rather excellent film starring Jack Nicholson, and even won its creator the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1949. NICE ONE, SWEDEN.

Matt Ordish is a dashing young lad with a BSc in Neuroscience. He’s currently studying towards a BPharm and enjoys a lot of Guitar Hero. And I mean a lot. Words cannot describe how much a hero he is for the guitar.

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