Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Phineas Gage: The Living Halloween Costume

If you’re looking for a good, simple, and horrifying Halloween costume, our topic this week might serve as some inspiration. A warning though, this is not a tale for the squeamish.

On September 13, 1848, a man named Phineas Gage had a very rough day. Gage was a rail worker in Vermont tasked with the unenviable job of blasting rocks. While today this might involve dynamite, wires, and some measure of safety gear, 1848 was a different time. The process basically went as such: drill a hole in a rock, toss in some blasting powder, a fuse, and sand, and smash the whole mixture down with a tamping iron (a big metal pole). No one knows exactly why things went wrong for old Phineas, but you can rest assured that they did. Possibly because he forgot the sand, his tamping iron set of a spark which ignited the powder and set off a premature blast. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the blast itself that made Gage famous (at least to science-types); it was the tamping iron. The explosion launched the iron out of the hole in the rock and directly through Phineas Gage’s head.

The iron entered Gage’s head below the left eye socket and exited through the top of his skull, landing about 80 feet away. The blast threw him backwards, landing face up where his body convulsed for a few minutes. However, being a rail worker of 19th century constitution, once the convulsions subsided, Gage sat up, talked to his co-workers, and walked with little assistance to the wagon that drove him home… Yes, I’m serious.


Within a few hours of the accident, doctors arrived at Gage’s house. As they did their best to piece Gage’s skull back together, the man calmly explained to those around him what had happened. He only paused occasionally to vomit, the act of which “pressed out about half a teacupful of the brain, which fell upon the floor,” according to his doctors.


While Gage did his best to assure everyone he would be back at work in a few days, things were a little touch and go for the next couple of weeks. One day he would know who is friends and family were, the next he wouldn’t. Eventually he slipped into a coma. That is when Dr. John Matryn Harlow reopened Gage’s wounds and drained about a cup of pus and blood. After that, things went better.

Amazingly, Gage lived another 12 years, working mostly as a stagecoach driver in New Hampshire and Chile. Eventually though, his brain damage caught up to him and he developed seizures, which eventually led to his death.


The truly incredible thing about the story of Phineas Gage is the degree to which he recovered. Prior to his accident, the common understanding of brain function was that it was completely essential to life. What Gage taught science was that even trauma on an unimaginable scale was not only survivable, but not even all that impactful.

Actually, that isn’t totally true. What Gage actually taught science was that, while some parts of the brain are absolutely essential for life (such as your cerebellum, which controls breathing and other involuntary motor functions), some areas are devoted to higher-order functions. Following his accident, friends and co-workers reported that Gage’s personality changed somewhat drastically. The once polite, considerate man they had known became short, impetuous, and developed a cursing habit that could make a sailor blush.

Gage’s was the first documented case of how brain trauma impacts a person’s mental abilities. From him we learned that the brain’s frontal lobes play an important role in impulse control and planning for future events. We now know that this area of the human brain was the last to evolve and is critical in our ability to form functioning social groups, as it allows us to control our more instinctual behaviours. Your frontal lobes are the jockey that controls the horse of emotion and impulse.


Phineas Gage’s life can also serve as a cautionary tale in a world where we increasingly value fame and attention. In his day, Gage acquired a good measure of fame. He even spent some time at Barnum’s American Museum. But I guess if you asked old Phineas whether or not the fame was worth getting an iron bar through his head, he would probably just look at you, swear a bunch, then have a seizure.


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