I love reading stories about brain research. Exploring the brain is like exploring outer space. I’m not sure that we will ever figure everything out about either of them.
Go back a hundred year or more and scientists didn’t know anything about which parts of the brain did cognitive functions where the senses were located. It was still considered legitimate for doctors to use phrenology. That was measuring bumps on someone’s head as a way to detect mental illness.
And then came Phineas Gage. Poor Phineas had a tragic accident.
In 1848, Phineas Gage was a 25-year-old foreman of railroad crew that was cutting a railroad bed into rock for a new rail line in Cavendish, Vermont.
It was dangerous work. They would pack explosives into a hole, pack it down with a tamping iron, top it with sand and then stand back and blow it up.
September 13 was not a lucky day for Phineas. He was packing a hole and probably was distracted. looked away while he was tamping and the metal pole hit rock, set off a spark and ignited the explosive.
The explosion shot his tamping iron into Gage’s skull just under his eye socket and it came out the back of his head.
That tamping iron was 3 feet long, 1.25 inches round and it weighed 13 pounds. It did not kill him.
But it did change him. I don’t mean that he looked different, but he did. It was his personality that changed.
His friends and workers described the pre-accident Gage as being “amiable, with a well-balanced mind… shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation.”
But Gage after the accident swore at everyone, was constantly drunk, became a lousy worker and was no longer much of a friend.
He lost his railroad job could only get menial work.
But his injury showed doctors that there was a link between the brain and our personalities. With our current knowledge, we can map where the tamping iron passed through his brain and the function of the temporal lobe. We now know that the temporal lobe is responsible for processing information we see and hear. But it also is responsible for long-term memory, behavior and personality and processing language.
Phineas Gage moved to San Francisco to be near his mother and sister, but after suffering from a number of seizures, he died 1860 at age 36.