Phineas Gage

Probably the most famous case of frontal lobe damage comes from an accident that of Phineas Gage. On September 13, 1848, a 25 year old Phineas Gage was working as a railroad foreman in Vermont. He and his crew were using an iron rod to tamp explosives down into a blasting hole to remove rock along the railway’s path. Unfortunately, the iron rod created a spark and caused the rod to explode out of the blasting hole penetrating Gage’s face, and exiting through his skull. Despite such an accident, Gage was conscious and still able to communicate. But in the months following his accident, people noticed that his personality had changed. Many of his friends described him as “no longer being himself”. Before the accident, he was described as a well-mannered, soft-spoken man. However, Gage was now behaving in odd and inappropriate ways. Such changes in personality would be consistent with loss of impulse control—a frontal lobe function.

The Injury

Beyond the damage to the frontal lobe itself, subsequent investigations into the rod’s path also identified probable damage to pathways between the frontal lobe and other brain structures, including the limbic system. With connections between the planning functions of the frontal lobe and the emotional processes of the limbic system severed, Gage had difficulty controlling his emotional impulses.

However, there is some evidence suggesting that the dramatic changes in Gage’s personality were exaggerated and embellished. Gage’s case occurred in the midst of a 19th century debate over localization—regarding whether certain areas of the brain are associated with particular functions. On the basis of extremely limited information about Gage, the extent of his injury, and his life before and after the accident, scientists tended to find support for their own views, on whichever side of the debate they fell (Macmillan, 1999).

Above, you can see Phineas Gage holding the iron rod that penetrated his skull in 1848. On the left is a 3D reconstruction of what the injury may have looked like – the injury would have left severe damage to Gage’s left prefrontal cortex . The rod entered Gage’s face on the left side, passed behind his eye, and exited through the top of his skull, before landing an amazing 80 feet away!
3D reconstruction of the brain of Phineas Gage.
Title: Phineas Gage Injury – Animation | Author: Polygon | License: CC BY-SA 2.1 JP

Resources

  1. OpenStax, Psychology. OpenStax CNX. Jul 19, 2019 http://cnx.org/contents/4abf04bf-93a0-45c3-9cbc-2cefd46e68cc@10.24. License: CC BY 4.0 License Terms: Edited & Adapted | Download for free at http://cnx.org/contents/4abf04bf-93a0-45c3-9cbc-2cefd46e68cc@10.24.
  2. Polygon. “File:Phineas Gage Injury – Animation.gif.” Wikimedia Commons, 25 Oct. 2015, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Phineas_Gage_injury_-_animation.gifLicense: CC BY-SA 2.1 JP License Terms: No edits were made.