Psychology, Brain Trauma, and Phineas Gage

Portrait of Phineas Gage Professor Mindy Erchull’s Psychology 100 course is covering everything from brain trauma to memory to Freud in their blog posts. And the range of reflections and incorporation of the ubiquity of psychology in popular culture makes for a fascinating and engaging space to follow. Don’t miss Lucy Bain’s regular and intelligent posts that document her thinking and questioning on the topics being raised.

What’s more, professor Erchull’s link to these two articles on Phineas Gage, “nueroscience’s most famous patient,” makes for excellent reading. From the Smithsonian article you get a nice recounting of this 19th century railroad worker’s story:

In 1848, Gage, 25, was the foreman of a crew cutting a railroad bed in Cavendish, Vermont. On September 13, as he was using a tamping iron to pack explosive powder into a hole, the powder detonated. The tamping iron—43 inches long, 1.25 inches in diameter and weighing 13.25 pounds—shot skyward, penetrated Gage’s left cheek, ripped into his brain and exited through his skull, landing several dozen feet away. Though blinded in his left eye, he might not even have lost consciousness, and he remained savvy enough to tell a doctor that day, “Here is business enough for you.”

Gage’s initial survival would have ensured him a measure of celebrity, but his name was etched into history by observations made by John Martyn Harlow, the doctor who treated him for a few months afterward. Gage’s friends found him“no longer Gage,” Harlow wrote. The balance between his “intellectual faculties and animal propensities” seemed gone. He could not stick to plans, uttered “the grossest profanity” and showed “little deference for his fellows.” The railroad-construction company that employed him, which had thought him a model foreman, refused to take him back. So Gage went to work at a stable in New Hampshire, drove coaches in Chile and eventually joined relatives in San Francisco, where he died in May 1860, at age 36, after a series of seizures.

Read more:

And add to that the fact that the image above, believed to be of Gage holding the tamping iron that shot through his head was discovered recently via Flickr. How cool is that?

Image credit: image here.

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3 Responses to Psychology, Brain Trauma, and Phineas Gage

  1. peter naegele says:

    Gage’s case is a fascinating one. I recently did some work with undergrads on risk taking behavior and the development of a section of the brain in adolescents. Interestingly, I ran across this article linking Gage’s accident and later behavior to damage in the same area; the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPF).

  2. Reverend says:


    That’s cray, the whole idea of that rod shooting through his head, him surviving, and then having these wild psychological transformations is like a film. Some kind of devolution to an animal-like form. It’s almost werewolf-like. And then throw in the image from Flickr, and the whole thing is just a wild story.

  3. peter naegele says:

    True…quite daft! You should read some of the cases handled by Oliver Sacks [] and Vilayanur S. Ramachandran []. There are some amazing cases on the plasticity of brain and mind…..

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