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Can A Brain Injury Make You A Genius?
Phineas Gage: Neuroscience’s Most Famous Patient
The photograph above, which was uncovered earlier this year, is one of only two known images of an otherwise unremarkable man named Phineas Gage who attained near-legendary status in the history of neuroscience and psychology one fateful day in at the age of Gage earned his place in the neurological hall of fame in a most unusual — and extremely unfortunate — way. A railroad construction foreman in the US, he was in charge of a crew of men who were working on the construction of the Rutland and Burlington Railroad near Cavendish, Vermont. On 18 September, he and his crew were excavating rocks to make way for the railroad. Gage was preparing for an explosion, using the tamping iron he holds in the photograph to compact explosive charge in a borehole. As he was doing so, the iron produced a spark that ignited the powder, and the resulting blast propelled the tamping iron straight through his head. John Harlow, the physician who attended to Gage at the scene, noted that the tamping iron was found some 10 metres away, "where it was afterward picked up by his men, smeared with blood and brain".
Forgot Password? Today, we take it for granted that certain parts of the brain are responsible for certain aspects of our behavior. But in the s, scientists were just grasping a rough understanding of the brain's purpose. That all changed — violently — on a fateful day in , when an iron rod rocketed through the brain of a young rail foreman named Phineas Gage. On September 13th, , Gage was using explosives to clear rocks for the construction of a new rail line in Cavendish, Vermont. The work was simple, if a little dangerous: He'd drill a hole, fill it with explosive powder, pack it in with a tamping iron, then pour sand on top.
Phineas P. Historically, published accounts of Gage including scientific ones have almost always severely exaggerated and distorted his behavioral changes, frequently contradicting the known facts. A report of Gage's physical and mental condition shortly before his death implies that his most serious mental changes were temporary, so that in later life he was far more functional, and socially far better adapted, than in the years immediately following his accident. A social recovery hypothesis suggests that his work as a stagecoach driver in Chile fostered this recovery by providing daily structure which allowed him to regain lost social and personal skills. Gage may have first worked with explosives on farms as a youth, or in nearby mines and quarries.
Jack and Beverly Wilgus, collectors of vintage photographs, no longer recall how they came by the 19th-century daguerreotype of a disfigured yet still-handsome man. It was at least 30 years ago. The photograph offered no clues as to where or precisely when it had been taken, who the man was or why he was holding a tapered rod.
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In September , in Cavendish, Vermont, an incident occurred which was to change our understanding of the relation between mind and brain. Phineas P Gage, a 25 year old railroad foreman, was excavating rock. In preparation for blasting he was tamping powder into a drill hole when a premature explosion drove the tamping iron—1. He recognised and reassured Dr Harlow, who had been summoned to the scene. The wound continued to bleed for two days; then followed a virulent infection that rendered Gage semiconscious for a month. His condition was so poor that a coffin had been prepared. Nevertheless, Dr Harlow continued treatment, and by the fifth week the infection had resolved and Gage had regained consciousness.