Vermont Legendarium

Phineas Gage: The remarkable tale of an altered brain

Gage and his “constant companion”‍—‌his inscribed tamping iron‍—‌sometime after 1849, seen in the portrait (identified in 2009) that “exploded the common image of Gage as a dirty, disheveled misfit”

by Timothy Page

In the annals of neuroscience, one name stands out as a testament to the intricate relationship between the brain and behavior – legendary Vermonter Phineas Gage. A railroad construction foreman from the 19th century, Gage survived a horrific accident that forever altered our understanding of the human brain.

Life Before the Accident

Phineas Gage was born to Jesse Eaton Gage and Hannah Trussell Gage in Grafton County, New Hampshire, on July 9, 1823. He was the youngest of five children. His family was of modest means, and he grew up in a farming community. He received a basic education during his childhood, but there is limited information available about his formal schooling. In his teenage years, he worked on his family’s farm and gained experience in manual labor. As he grew older, he developed a reputation for being hardworking and responsible.

In the mid-1840s, Gage found employment in the emerging railroad industry. He started as a laborer but quickly rose to the position of a foreman due to his strong work ethic, leadership skills, and ability to effectively coordinate construction crews. His role as a foreman involved managing the workers and ensuring the smooth progress of construction projects, overseeing the manual labor involved in clearing the way for the tracks.

Item in Boston Post briefly relating accident which befell Phineas Gage September 13, 1848

The Accident

By John M. Harlow, M.D.

On September 13, 1848, in Cavendish, Vermont, Phineas Gage was involved in a catastrophic accident that would change his life forever. As the foreman in charge of a railroad construction crew, Gage was tasked with blasting through rock formations to clear the way for the tracks. However, a fateful moment occurred when a spark ignited a premature explosion, propelling an iron rod straight through Gage’s skull, entering beneath the left cheekbone and exiting through the top of his head. Astonishingly, Gage survived this harrowing incident.

Physical Recovery

Phineas Gage’s physical survival was nothing short of miraculous. Despite losing vision in his left eye, he was able to walk and talk, seemingly making a remarkable recovery. However, the true extent of his injuries would only become apparent in the months and years that followed.

Personality Transformation

What made Phineas Gage’s case so extraordinary was the dramatic change in his personality and behavior following the accident. Previously described as a well-mannered, responsible, and dependable individual, Gage’s character underwent a profound shift. Friends and acquaintances observed him as irritable, impulsive, and lacking in social judgment. His once-promising career as a foreman came to a halt as he struggled to maintain employment due to his unpredictable nature.

Insights into Brain Function

Phineas Gage’s unique case ignited scientific curiosity and opened up new avenues of research into the relationship between brain function and behavior. At the time, little was known about the brain’s intricate workings, and Gage’s case provided valuable evidence that specific brain regions were responsible for regulating personality traits and cognitive abilities.

By Unknown author – Vermont Patriot and State Gazette (Montpelier, Vermont), v27 n34, p3 col4, Public Domain

Frontal Lobe and its Role

Further investigations into Phineas Gage’s case revealed that the iron rod had damaged a significant portion of his frontal lobe, specifically the left prefrontal cortex. This region plays a crucial role in decision-making, impulse control, emotional regulation, and social behavior. The damage to Gage’s frontal lobe resulted in a loss of executive functions, leading to his altered personality and impulsive tendencies. Some specific alterations that were noted included:

Frontispiece, showing multiple views of the exhumed skull, and tamping iron, of brain injury survivor Phineas Gage.
J.B.S. Jackson, MD – A Descriptive Catalog of the Warren Anatomical Museum (1870)

. Irritability and Impulsivity: Prior to the accident, Gage was described as a well-mannered and responsible individual. However, after the injury, he became easily irritable and displayed impulsive behavior. He would often lash out verbally and even physically at those around him over minor frustrations.

. Lack of Social Judgment: Gage’s ability to make sound social judgments and adhere to societal norms was significantly impaired. He displayed a disregard for social conventions and exhibited inappropriate behavior in various contexts. His interactions became tactless, lacking the usual filter and sensitivity.

. Emotional Instability: Gage experienced notable emotional changes following the accident. He would swing between emotional extremes, displaying sudden outbursts of anger, sadness, or euphoria without apparent provocation. This emotional instability affected his relationships and made it difficult for him to maintain stable employment.

. Impaired Decision-Making: Gage’s ability to make rational and logical decisions was compromised. He became more impulsive and prone to making impromptu choices without considering the consequences. This inability to think through actions and weigh potential outcomes contributed to his difficulties in maintaining employment and effectively managing his life.

. Reduced Future Planning: Gage demonstrated a significant decline in his capacity to plan for the future and set long-term goals. He became largely focused on immediate gratification and disregarded the potential consequences of his actions. This shift in his cognitive abilities further hindered his ability to lead a stable and productive life.

Legacy and Impact

Phineas Gage’s case remains one of the most influential in the field of neuroscience, even more than a century and a half after his accident. His story has been extensively studied, referenced, and cited in numerous scientific publications, textbooks, and lectures. It has helped shape our understanding of brain injuries and their effects on cognition, behavior, and personality. Gage’s case serves as a reminder that the brain is the epicenter of our thoughts, emotions, and actions, and any damage to this delicate organ can have profound consequences.

Phineas Gage’s journey from a respected and responsible foreman to an impulsive and socially challenged individual unveiled the intricate relationship between the brain and behavior. His case revolutionized our understanding of the brain’s functions, particularly the role of the frontal lobe in personality and decision-making. Gage’s legacy endures as a testament to the resilience of the human brain and the profound impact that brain injuries can have on an individual’s life.  His tale, though tragic, has provided invaluable insights into the intricate functions of the brain and the profound impact of brain injuries on personality and behavior, and serves as a constant reminder of the fragility and remarkable complexity of the human mind.

Categories: Vermont Legendarium

2 replies »

  1. While this is a fascinating story, it has always bothered me that his remains were desecrated. I don’t know authorized it, but even if it was family…it was wrong. The dead should be respected and left where they have been placed. It is dishonorable in my opinion.

  2. Yes, I am old, but I have had to look at this story too many times.
    Please, put it to bed, or rest. I’m sick of it.