Friday, May 9, 2014

Phineas Gage Got Better

You all know the story of Phineas Gage, how an explosion sent an iron bar through his head, damaging his frontal lobes, causing him to change from a particularly reliable, steady man to an impulsive, highly unreliable one. Most of this account comes from a few paragraphs written by physician John Harlow:
Frustratingly, Harlow limited his discussion of Gage’s mental status to a few hundred words, but he does make it clear that Gage changed—somehow. Although resolute before the accident, Harlow says Gage was now capricious, and no sooner made a plan than dropped it for another scheme. Although deferential to people’s wishes before, Gage now chafed at any restraint on his desires. Although a “smart, shrewd businessman” before, Gage now lacked money sense. And although courteous and reverent before, Gage was now “fitful [and] irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity.” Harlow summed up Gage’s personality changes by saying, “the equilibrium ... between his intellectual faculties and his animal propensities seems to have been destroyed.” More pithily, friends said that Gage “was no longer Gage.”

As a result of this change, the railroad refused to reinstate Gage as foreman. He began traveling around New England instead, displaying himself and his tamping iron for money. This included a stint in P.T. Barnum’s museum in New York—not Barnum’s traveling circus, as some sources claim. For an extra dime, skeptical viewers could “part Gage’s hair and see his brain ... pulsating” beneath his scalp. Gage finally found steady work driving a horse coach in New Hampshire.
But as this in some ways monumentally annoying article explains, that wasn't the end of the story. After a few years of troubled life in North America, Gage took ship for Chile, where he worked for seven years as a teamster. During this time he seems to have recovered his stability and become something of his old, reliable self. But ill health drove him to quit Chile and rejoin his family near San Francisco in 1859; he died the following year after a seizure at the age of 36.

Taking his South American years into account, Gage's story comes to be as much about the self-healing properties of the human brain as the function of the frontal lobes. New work on the likely impact of the rod that went through his head suggests that it only actually trashed one hemisphere of his brain, which may have helped the healing.

Which is really quite interesting, but nothing like a complete reversal of the Gage story as that monumentally annoying article tries to claim. Really, people, it is not necessary to reject all prior work on a topic to justify your own minor addition.

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