Slate Magazine has just published a piece on infamous brain damage survivor Phineas Gage. To tell the story of Gage and his continuing importance in the history of psychology the article draws heavily on the work of Malcolm Macmillan. As the Slate article recounts,
Most of us first encountered Gage in a neuroscience or psychology course, and the lesson of his story was both straightforward and stark: The frontal lobes house our highest faculties; they’re the essence of our humanity, the physical incarnation of our highest cognitive powers. So when Gage’s frontal lobes got pulped, he transformed from a clean-cut, virtuous foreman into a dirty, scary, sociopathic drifter. Simple as that. This story has had a huge influence on the scientific and popular understanding of the brain. Most uncomfortably, it implies that whenever people suffer grave damage to the frontal lobes—as soldiers might, or victims of strokes or Alzheimer’s disease—something essentially human can vanish.
Recent historical work, however, suggests that much of the canonical Gage story is hogwash, a mélange of scientific prejudice, artistic license, and outright fabrication. In truth each generation seems to remake Gage in its own image, and we know very few hard facts about his post-accident life and behavior. Some scientists now even argue that, far from turning toward the dark side, Gage recovered after his accident and resumed something like a normal life—a possibility that, if true, could transform our understanding of the brain’s ability to heal itself.
The Guardian‘s Science Section has a fascinating piece on a recent attempt by researchers to reconstruct the damage done to Phineas Gage’s brain, who famously survived an 1848 accident in which a tamping iron was shot through his head. As the article describes, research on the damage done to Gage’s brain is part of the larger Human Connectome Project that aims to map all the connections in the human brain.
But how does one reconstruct the connectome of someone who died more than 150 years ago, and whose brain no longer even exists? Van Horn and his colleagues used high-resolution CT scans of Gage’s skull, from a 2004 study that digitally reconstructed the trajectory of the iron rod as it passed through his brain, and examined the data again to re-estimate its path as accurately as possible.
They then selected structural MRI and DTI data from 110 healthy people from the LONI Image Data Archive. All of these data came from men aged between 25 (Gage’s age at the time of his accident) and 36 (the age at which he died). The researchers combined these data to produce a generalized map of the long-range connections in the human brain, and used computational modelling to project the passage of the tamping iron onto it.
The computation model of the passage of the tamping iron through Gage’s brain is shown in the video above. While this model shows severe, widespread damage to Gage’s brain, it has been known for a number of years that there is little evidence in the historical record of the purported profound personality changes Gage experienced post-accident. Ultimately, what this kind of research tells us about Gage’s experience after the accident is unclear. (Find out more about Gage’s accident and his life afterward in an interview with Gage’s biographer Malcolm Macmillan on the This Week in the History of Psychology Podcast series.)
Read the full Guardian article online here and the original PLoS ONE article whose research is described in the Guardian piece here.