Recent studies have found an alarming number of homeless adults and jailed teens have suffered brain injuries before losing their homes or being incarcerated. The latest wave of data being released has sparked an interest in the connection between brain injuries and behavior. Specifically, many have openly wondered if brain injuries could potentially turn a normal, law-abiding citizen into a disheveled degenerate or immoral criminal.
If that theory sounds familiar too you, it may be because it mirrors the lesson commonly pulled from one of the most infamous stories in all of neuroscience. For over a century, neuroscientists and teachers alike have trotted out the story of Phineas Gage to show how the frontal lobes play an essential role in maintaining the unique essence of what makes us fully-realized people.
From Gage’s tale, medical science has extracted the idea that the frontal lobes are the home of our highest faculties, and without them we devolve into something less than human. If you haven’t encountered the story of Phineas Gage by now, I’ll share a shortened version of the tale.
In 1848, Phineas Gage worked as a railroad foreman working to clear away tough black rock near Cavendish, Vermont. Gage was considered one of the best foreman around, and on the day of Sept. 13, he was tasked with sprinkling gun powder into blasting holes, and tamping it down gently with an iron rod. Once this was completed, an assistant filled the hole further with sand or clay, which was tamped down harder to confine the blast to a small space.
Around 4:30 p.m., Gage filled one hole with gunpowder before being distracted by crew members loading busted rock onto a cart. From that moment, the story is unclear.
Some say Phineas tried to tamp the gunpowder down while his head was still turned, and scraped his iron against the side of the hole, making a spark. Other reports say Gage’s assistant failed to fill the hole with sand, and when Gage returned to his work he brought the rod down hard, thinking it was the non-explosive material. Either way, something triggered a spark in the hole, igniting the gunpowder and sending Gage’s tamping rod flying upward.
The rod flew through Gage’s head point first, hitting below the left cheekbone, destroying an upper molar, going behind the left eye, and tearing into the underside of the brain’s left frontal lobe. From there, it exited through the top of the skull, near the mid-line of his hair, and landing 25 feet away.
While the story is grizzly, and surely has added to Gage’s infamy, it is the reports of what happened after that have kept Gage in textbooks around the world to this day. Supposedly, Phineas gradually deteriorated from his hard-working, clean-cut self into a raving, animalistic, degenerate. The events serve as proof that the frontal lobe is essential for human behavior.
However, a recent Slate exposition brings everything we think we know about Phineas after his injury into question, along with many of the beliefs associating damaged frontal lobes with criminal or degenerate behavior.
For a figure still being spoken about in neuroscience classrooms to this day, there are very few confirmed facts about his existence post-accident. Not only that, but many of the reports we do have about Phineas’ life are conflicting, inaccurate, and seem to exemplify more about scientific ideals and artistic license than they tell us about the life of Phineas Gage.
When Sam Kean began to notice the number of errors and fabrications that followed Gage’s incident and legacy, he began to dig deeper and uncovered an alternate possibility for the rest of Gage’s life, which suggests there are still lessons to be learned from Phineas Gage, but only if we are willing to consider that much of what we know about him may not be true. Similarly, much of what we believe about a criminal association with frontal lobe damage may need to be reexamined.