Saturday, July 21, 2012

Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage
            While learning cognition, a reference is made about the mental processes that take place with in the brain and how these processes are related to one’s knowledge and their ability to comprehend, deal with problem solving, one’s judgment and memory (Willingham, 2007).   Cognition can shape the way a person sees things in the world differently.  When one is encountered with various scenarios certain areas of the brain are triggered giving different reactions.  If there is damage to the brain, there could be misfiring of that sector causing a disturbance within that given activity.  This paper will discuss various cognitive functions of the brain, what occurs after an injury to any given section of the brain dealing with memory function or cognitive learning as well as touching on the injury sustained to Phineas Gage
Role of Cognitive Functions in the brain
            The brain is divided into segments that regulate one’s memory.  The amygdala, hippocampus, and the rhinal cortex all are linked to memory.   The amygdala stores emotional memory and memories that are triggered by emotional motivations.  The hippocampus receives information from the senses and then “programs” that into the short-term memory region of the brain.  The rhinal cortex is where humans recall learned information.  The cerebral cortex is what is studied, photographed and imaged when one begins to reference the brain (Willingham, 2007).  The four lobes located in the cerebral cortex are the frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal, each one of these is associated with cognitive function in one way. 

The rest of the brain and the four lobes
            Frontal lobe is responsible for one’s personality as well as expressing emotions.  There is no other part of the brain where lesions can cause such a wide variety of symptoms (Centre for Neuro Skills, 2011).  As some would think, the frontal lobe is susceptible to many different injuries because of its location.  The parietal lobe contains two functional segments they are key with sensation and the other combines sensory information with visual context.  People, who have damage to this area of the brain, have a skewed view of body images as well as spatial relations. (Kandel, Schwartz, & Jessell, 2000).  The occipital lobe is located behind the head.  Because of its location, there is limited damage here.  Even though, if the trauma is significant enough, it might produce a change in the visual perception and fields of vision (Kandel, Schwartz, & Jessell, 2000).  The temporal lobe is broken into two parts.  If the left side is damaged, there could be issues with interoperating words.  If the right side is damaged then there is a possibility of damage to speech. As you can see each area of the brain plays a vital role in cognitive function (Willingham, 2007). 
Phineas Gage
            Andrew Grieve describes Phineas Gage as a railroad worker who received a devastating head injury on the job when a four-foot long tamping iron was shot through his skull obliterating both frontal lobes (Grieve, 2010).
 At 16:30 h, after ensuring that a correctly positioned hole had been drilled in the rock, he inserted some blasting powder (gunpowder) and a fuse and then attempted to pad (‘tamp’) the powder down. He neglected to cover the blasting powder with sand (as was the usual practice) and a spark formed when the tamping iron struck the rock. This ignited the blasting powder and sent the tamping iron, sharp end first, through his skull Upon treatment and care on the scene, Gage survived the accident but with ill effects.  Phineas personality changed due to the trauma, the further along he healed the more apparent this came to not only his friends but his family as well (Grieve, 2010). 

By April of 1848, had made a complete physical recovery.  But everyone could tell he was not the man he was before the accident.  He was unable to continue his job on the railroad.  He made a living working on a boarding stable in New Hampshire, and as a driver in Chile.  He then developed epilepsy returned home to his mother’s home in San Francisco where he died in 1860.

Cognitive Function after Gage accident

            To this day Gage has remained one of the most important cases when understanding behavior as it relates to brain injury.  Dr. Williams who was his attending physician at the time of the accident and Dr. JM Harlow who recorded most of his recovery, it was a miracle he was alive at all.  Dr. Harlow annotated that roughly four weeks after the accident Gage remembered everything, he was able to keep record of dates and times (Neylan, 1999).  However, upon further examination, he did note that Phineas was displaying difficulties with dimension, as well as showing signs of cognitive damage.  His character changed and took his independence into unfamiliar territory to those who knew him best.  Gage’s injury while horrific, it did play a critical role in behavioral syndromes when related to injury and the brain (Neylan, 1999). 
            By studying cognitive psychology there can be a better grasp on how human behavior and how the brain works can be clearer.  Depending on the patients mental standing as well as capability to comprehend language, perception, learning, and memory will all aid in advances in understanding.  While Phineas Gage’s accident was tragic, it paved the way for understanding in frontal cortex injuries.  Sadly, though even today, one’s unfortunate accidents pave the way for research and knowledge of brain injury.


Centre for Neuro Skills. (2011). Brain Anatomy and Function. Retrieved July 3, 2011,
            from CEU Course:

Grieve, A. W. (2010). Phineas P Gage -- 'The man with the Iron bar'.
            Trauma, 12(3), 171-174. Retrieved from EBSCOhost

Kandel, E. R., Schwartz, J., & Jessell, T. (2000). Principles of Neural Science 4thEd.
            New York, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kolb, B., & Whishaw, I. Q. (2008). Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology. New
            York, NY: Worth Publisher, 6th Ed.

Neylan, T. (1999). Frontal Lobe Function. Retrieved July 2, 2011, from Classic Articles:

Willingham, D. T. (2007). Cognition The Thinking Animal (Vol. 3rd). Upper Saddle
            River, New Jersey, USA: Pearson Education, Inc.

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