Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage – Brain Science Touchstone & Pop Culture Icon

Phineas Gage symbolic of traumatic brain injury, personality disorder, and emotional disturbance.

Surviving a freak accident—  that was how Phineas Gage became famous. If given a choice, he’d probably prefer to be remembered as someone who rose above challenges, lived in a foreign country, and was considered the ‘fun uncle’ by his nieces and nephews.

Regardless of its moral value, Gage’s traumatic brain injury, recorded and publicized by his treating physician (Dr. Harlow), made Phineas a touchstone for the fields of brain science, neurology, and psychology.

“In the 19th century, Gage’s survival seemed miraculous. Fascination with his plight encouraged scientific research into the brain, and the continuing research into Gage’s condition is proof that this same curiosity is still alive today.” — case study, BigPictureEducation.com

Gage frequently appears in contemporary media.

Hell on Wheels (AMC, 2014) producers tipped a hat to Phineas when Doctor Major Augustus Bendix (Leon Ingulsrud), mentions him while reading a phrenology book (skull bumps relating to character traits).

Setting the tone for Elam’s (Common) backstory (Bear Man episode). The railroad worker is ‘not himself’ after a bear attack that punctures his skull.

In the Pollywog episode of Stranger Things2 (Netflix, 2016), science teacher Mr. Clarke (Randy Havens) lectures his middle school class about the American crowbar case. “Phineas, miraculously, survived….but his injury resulted in a complete change to his personality.”

Later, the audience learns that Will Byers, (Noah Schnapp) returned from the Upside Down, is no longer the sweet boy he was before his mysterious mishap.

In the January 2018 issue of National Geographic,  The Science of Good and Evil analyzes a connection between violence and empathy. In the article, a full page photo of Phineas, holding his tamping iron, is captioned with, “When he recovered, he was no longer friendly and respectful; he was uncaring and indifferent.”

In pop culture, Phineas Gage symbolizes traumatic brain injury, emotional disturbance, and personality disorders.

Although Dr. Harlow included personality changes in his notes immediately following the accident, he lost contact with Gage, never performing follow-up examinations.

While it is probably true that Phineas was altered after his accident, the traits with which he is associated may not be accurate.

In his award-winning book, An Odd Kind of Fame, author Malcolm Macmillian, the world’s Gage authority, subscribes to a social recovery hypothesis. He believes that Phineas’s work as a Concord coach driver demonstrates adaptations and coping skills that he developed.

For almost twelve years after the accident, Phineas managed to make his way in the word. We may never have a clear picture of how he lived his life during that time.

What we do know is that Phineas’s place in history, as an icon for brain injury and behavior change, is fixed.

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For more interesting brain/behavior stories, check out NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast with Shankar Vedantam.

Hidden Brain reveals the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, the biases that shape our choices, and the triggers that direct the course of our relationships.

 

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Resources:

Fiction book based on known facts about Phineas Gage and what his life might have been like after his terrible railroad accident.
Phases of Gage: After the Accident Years

Articles

Art & Popular Culture – Phineas Gage

How the Story of Phineas Gage ties into Stranger Things2 – Refinery29.com

Ice Pick Cure – History of Lobotomy – WIRED

Neurophilosophy: the incredible case of Phineas Gage – ScienceBlogs.com

Phineas Gage books, research notes, and videos

Popular Culture & Psychology…Not Such Strange Bedfellows – Psychology Today

Popular Culture Meets Psychology – Psychology Today

The extraordinary life of Phineas Gage – The Naked Scientists

Organization

SSPC
The Society for the Study of Psychiatry and Culture (SSPC) is a nonprofit, interdisciplinary organization devoted to furthering research, clinical care and education in cultural aspects of mental health and illness.

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