What You Probably Don't Know About the Most Famous Case in Neuroscience

Illustration for article titled What You Probably Don't Know About the Most Famous Case in Neuroscience

In 1845, a meter-long iron rod pierced the skull of Vermont railway worker Phineas Gage. The resulting changes to his personality forever changed our perception of the human brain. But what happened next to Gage is rarely covered in textbooks — a problematic oversight, say psychologists.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could survive something like this. The three-and-half-foot-long, 13-pound tamping iron entered into Gage’s skull just above his left jaw and exited directly at the top. After the accident, he apparently became unreliable, profane, and obstinate. He couldn’t remember many of his friends, and he lost any concept of the value of money. The incident inspired many early neuroscientists and psychologists to study the connection between brain structure and personality. Work into Gage’s case has even continued into recent times, including a 3D reconstruction of his pierced brain.

Illustration for article titled What You Probably Don't Know About the Most Famous Case in Neuroscience

But much of what we think we know about Phineas Gage is wrong, exaggerated, and incomplete, this according to a new study by Richard Griggs, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Florida. He reached this conclusion after surveying 23 contemporary textbooks published between 2000 and 2010.

“Although coverage was generally accurate when included, only half a dozen textbooks discussed Gage’s subsequent history or recovery,” writes Griggs in the study. “Inclusion of [recently discovered photos of Gage] and recent modeling work was also lacking.”

A review of the paper from BPS Digest explains more:

[It] is now believed that Gage made a remarkable recovery from his terrible injuries. He ultimately emigrated to Chile where he worked as a horse-coach driver, controlling six horses at once and dealing politely with non-English speaking passengers. The latest simulations of his injury help explain his rehabilitation – it’s thought the iron rod passed through his left frontal lobe only, leaving his right lobe fully intact.

Yet, the textbooks mostly tell a different story. Of the 21 that cover Gage, only 4 mention the years he worked in Chile. Only three detail his mental recovery. Fourteen of the books tell you about the first research that attempted to identify the extent of his brain injuries, but just four of the books give you the results from the most technically advanced effort, published in 2004, that first suggested his brain damage was limited to the left frontal lobe. Only 9 of the books feature either of the two photos to have emerged of Gage in recent times.


Consequently, most textbooks fail to account for Gage’s rehabilitation, or provide students with the latest evidence on his injuries. This matters, says Griggs, because psychology’s most famous case study is frequently misrepresented, providing an overly simplistic impression of the effects of Gage’s injuries.

“It is important to the psychological teaching community to identify inaccuracies in our textbooks so that they can be corrected, and we as textbook authors and teachers do not continue to ‘give away’ false information about our discipline,” concludes Griggs.


More at BPS Digest. Read the entire study at Teaching of Psychology: “Coverage of the Phineas Gage Story in Introductory Psychology Textbooks: Was Gage No Longer Gage?”.

Contact the author at george@io9.com and @dvorsky. Top image by National Library of Medicine. 3D reconstruction by Jack Van Horn/PLOS.

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Honestly, I am guessing a lot of readers here are familiar with the story. I’ve run into it time and time again...

Still interesting yet again though!