The mythology that circles Phineas Gage

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.

via Phineas Gage neuroscience case: True story of famous frontal lobe patient is better than textbook accounts..

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.

10 thoughts on “The mythology that circles Phineas Gage

  1. Gage anecdotes and tall tales aside, the quoted bit from the Slate article shows how easy it is to confuse science with metaphysics, and by doing so, do both very poorly.


        1. I’m not even sure what they meant by the “brain is a manifestation of the self” bit, but the mind-brain link seems to have a lot of scientific evidence going for it. You could say the mind is non-physical in the same sense that software is non-physical, in an information / patterns sort of way, but the logical space for it being non-physical in any ghostly manner, in other words substance dualism, seems to be shrinking rapidly.


          1. There are plenty of alternatives to substance dualism, however – and substance dualism doesn’t posit the mind as being ghostly, anyways. Classical Cartesian substance dualism posits an intimate tie between the mind and body – the problems arose when the causal connection between the two became almost impossible to articulate but still had to be posited.

            At any rate, let substance dualism be proven entirely false – this would not do anything for the idea that the mind and body are one, except demonstrate the extent to which certain assumptions made by the early moderns have controlled how we do philosophy of mind.


          2. One of the other bloggers told me about property dualism, but I haven’t been able to decide if it is essentially the same as my software analogy or something different.

            I guess the key question is, is there an aspect of the mind that is independent of the brain? The experience of brain damaged patients seem to indicate no, or if there is, it is very limited. I actually did a post on this question a while back.
            I point out in that post that this doesn’t necessarily invalidate beliefs in an afterlife (although I myself don’t believe in one).


          3. The concept of brain-independent mind is incoherent – of course if there is a mind, it’s in intimate union with the brain though not reducible to the brain -no one has ever disputed this – not Cartesians, certainly. What’s disputed is the reductionism that of various identity theories.

            This is one of the problems of modern philosophy that turns out to only be a problem if you make a few certain assumptions – namely that those of a crudely cartesian flavour. Drop the cartesian assumptions, and you don’t have any of the ‘problems’ of consciousness – or at last, they aren’t really ‘problems’ anymore. There’s a whole classical tradition out there which has none of the issues, confusions and incoherencies that modern philosophy of mind does (Stoicism, Platonism, Aristotleianism, Scholastacism, Neo-platonism, etc).


  2. This was a fantastic article. I’ve done a good bit of research about Gage, so this was icing on the cake, if you will excuse the trite expression. From the article:

    “To judge whether a person changed after an accident, you have to have known him beforehand.”

    My late husband sustained a traumatic brain injury. He was hit by a train while driving over the RR tracks. They had been doing construction on the tracks for a couple of weeks so it wasn’t unusual for the flashing RR lights to be on often. Unfortunately, he went over the tracts without looking both ways. He and his passenger never heard a train horn.

    Gradually, his personality changed. He had issues with impulsive behavior, which was not like him at all. He also became physically abusive and that was definitely not like him. But at the time, I had no idea that his TBI was causing his behavioral problems. About 10 years after his accident he impulsively ended his life with a shotgun to the brain.

    My years of research helped me find forgiveness for my late husbands abusiveness, and has shown me that most mainstream religions and their gods didn’t/don’t know anything about the human brain and what can happen if it’s injured. Same with many philosophers throughout history. Some people never have behavioral problems and others do. But brain injuries or neurological disorders which often occur after TBI, should never be stigmatized. I know from extensive research, and my experience as a brainwave training neurotechnologist, that the brain can heal. Neurogenesis, neural connections/networks and neuroplasticity are key.

    A study was recently done showing that approximately 50% of teens between the ages of 16 and 18, who were sent to the New York City jail system, had TBI.
    “We undertook screening for TBI among newly admitted adolescents in the New York City jail system using a validated TBI screening tool. A convenience sample of 300 male and 84 female screenings was examined.

    Screening revealed that 50% of male and 49% of female adolescents enter jail with a history of TBI. Incidence of TBI was assessed using patient health records, and revealed an incidence of 3,107 TBI per 100,000 person-years.

    Elevated prevalence and incidence of TBI among incarcerated adolescents may relate to criminal justice involvement as well as friction in jail. Given the large representation of violence as a cause of TBI among our patients, we have begun focus groups with them to elicit meaningful strategies for living with and avoiding TBI.”

    And the other 50%? People should read the CDC’s comprehensive study “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACE) or the studies showing how having too much power over time can change the brain in adults, due to too much dopamine, thus addiction to their own biochemistry. The result? A disruption of normal cognition and emotion, leading to gross errors in judgment, an imperviousness to risk, huge egocentricity and lack of empathy for others. Sound familiar?

    Thanks for posting the article. My apologies for such a long comment. I’m fascinated with the brain and get excited when I see articles like this. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing. I definitely think we should always bear in mind that someone may be the way they are due to a brain injury. Many people have silent strokes and they only evidence of them may be personality shifts.

      None of us can never know when we might become a Phineas Gage.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “Many people have silent strokes and they only evidence of them may be personality shifts.”
    Exactly right. Much of my spare time is spent doing advocacy work. I get emails from people who’ve read the research I’ve posted on various forums. I am sharing one such email with permission, though I will not post the individuals name. As a note — the reason I had left the forum I was posting on for a while (as noted in the email) was because many religious people don’t take to well to me showing evidence that contradicts their beliefs, i.e., “original sin”.

    “HIya Victoria,
    Great to see you back. I had noticed you left for a while. I left also but came back for one reason and that was to read your posts, lol, and to thank you. Your posts taught me soo much regarding how the brain and illnesses can affect us. I was so intrigued that i started on a new course to learn more. (Unfortunately though and its strange how things turn), as you will learn from this letter my father became ill in January. Confusion . loss of short term memory . delusions . hallucination etc etc … no symptoms of any of this prior. Luckily I knew the signs and got him to a hospital. He was admitted to a psychiatric unit . yet was released weeks later after they said a blockage in his neck had caused the problem .

    Just four weeks ago he became exceptionally religious all of a sudden ( no previous of this before either ). Again delusions of grandeur . an incessant need to help others and humankind. To cut a long story short he thought he had seen the light and found god and that he was being called. He tried to take his own life and attempted to take my mother with him .. luckily both survived . He is now locked up in a medium security hospital for his safety .

    The whole point of this letter though is not to give you my life story or my problems but too thank you for what you do on these boards .. reading your links enabled me to be able to ask questions of the professionals that i would never have thought of before ie . push for MRI scans and eeg’s so that he wouldn’t be thought of as just another madman, and to give him the best shot at finding the correct problem and treatment. They are now looking into the fact that he may have had a series of mini strokes.

    If you just help one person it makes it all worthwhile. Don’t be disheartened by some who can’t see what it is that you are trying to do. There are many more out there including me who appreciate it sooo much.”


    Since that original email, I have learned that her father has fully neurologically rehabilitated. No more behavioral problems, and he is no longer hyper-religious. He’s home with his family, and wasn’t locked away in prison to rot like so many are.

    Liked by 1 person

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