Slate has an interesting article on Phineas Gage, and about how his story has been mythologized and overhyped over the years.
On Sept. 13, 1848, at around 4:30 p.m., the time of day when the mind might start wandering, a railroad foreman named Phineas Gage filled a drill hole with gunpowder and turned his head to check on his men. It was the last normal moment of his life.
Other victims in the annals of medicine are almost always referred to by initials or pseudonyms. Not Gage: His is the most famous name in neuroscience. How ironic, then, that we know so little else about the man—and that much of what we think we know, especially about his life unraveling after his accident, is probably bunk.
I’ve occasionally considered using Gage as an example to make a point, but generally shied away from it, primarily because his story seems to be so rife with uncertainties. The mythology that surrounds Gage seems to me to be a reminder of two important points.
The first is that we have to be careful not to let our own ideology influence our evaluation of the facts. In the case of Gage, it appears that there’s been a lot of something like pious fraud. That is, people looked at a story, thought about how it should have been in light of their current understanding of things, and that influenced what they passed on about that story. It’s how myths evolve, and it appears to have been a big factor in the Gage stories.
The second is that it bears keeping in mind that if history remembers you, it probably won’t remember the actual you, but a caricature of you, modeled on the needs of later generations. Since most of us won’t be remembered by history, it can be of some comfort that even the people who are remembered, aren’t really remembered.
That said, even though we know so little about Gage, what we do know is informative about how the brain and mind work, and leads to the conclusion summed up by the Slate article.
Another, deeper reason Gage will probably always be with us is that, despite all that remains murky and obscure, his life did hint at something important: The brain and mind are one. As one neuroscientist writes, “beneath the tall tales and fish stories, a basic truth embedded in Gage’s story has played a tremendous role in shaping modern neuroscience: that the brain is the physical manifestation of the personality and sense of self.” That’s a profound idea, and it was Phineas Gage who pointed us toward that truth.