Phineas Gage: His Accident and Impact on Psychology

Phineas Gage

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Phineas Gage is often referred to as the "man who began neuroscience." He experienced a traumatic brain injury when an iron rod was driven through his skull, destroying much of his frontal lobe.

Gage miraculously survived the accident. However, his personality and behavior were so changed as a result of the frontal lobe damage that many of his friends described him as an almost different person entirely. The impact that the accident had has helped us better understand what the frontal lobe does, especially in relation to personality.

Phineas Gage's Accident

On September 13, 1848, 25-year-old Gage was working as the foreman of a crew preparing a railroad bed near Cavendish, Vermont. He was using an iron tamping rod to pack explosive powder into a hole.

Unfortunately, the powder detonated, sending the 43-inch-long, 1.25-inch-diameter rod hurling upward. The rod penetrated Gage's left cheek, tore through his brain, and exited his skull before landing 80 feet away.

Gage not only survived the initial injury but was able to speak and walk to a nearby cart so he could be taken into town to be seen by a doctor. He was still conscious later that evening and able to recount the names of his co-workers. Gage even suggested that he didn't wish to see his friends since he would be back to work in "a day or two" anyway.

The Recovery Process

After developing an infection, Gage spent September 23 to October 3 in a semi-comatose state. On October 7, he took his first steps out of bed, and, by October 11, his intellectual functioning began to improve.

Descriptions of Gage's injury and mental changes were made by Dr. John Martyn Harlow. Much of what researchers know about the case is based on Harlow's observations.

Harlow noted that Gage knew how much time had passed since the accident and remembered clearly how the accident occurred, but had difficulty estimating the size and amounts of money. Within a month, Gage was well enough to leave the house.

In the months that followed, Gage returned to his parent's home in New Hampshire to recuperate. When Harlow saw Gage again the following year, the doctor noted that while Gage had lost vision in his eye and was left with obvious scars from the accident, he was in good physical health and appeared recovered.

Theories About Gage's Survival and Recovery

The type of injury sustained by Phineas Gage could have easily been fatal. While it cannot be said with certainty why Gage was able to survive the accident, let alone recover from the injury and still function, several theories exist. They include:

  • The rod's path. Some researchers suggest that the rod's path likely played a role in Gage's survival in that if it had penetrated other areas of the head—such as the pterygoid plexuses or cavernous sinus—Gage may have bled to death.
  • The brain's selective recruitment. In a 2022 study of another individual who also had an iron rod go through his skull—whom the researchers referred to as a "modern-day Phineas Gage"—it was found that the brain is able to selectively recruit non-injured areas to help perform functions previously assigned to the injured portion.
  • Work structure. Others theorize that Gage's work provided him structure, positively contributing to his recovery and aiding in his rehabilitation.

The Effects of Gage's Injury

Popular reports of Gage often depict him as a hardworking, pleasant man prior to the accident. Post-accident, these reports describe him as a changed man, suggesting that the injury had transformed him into a surly, aggressive heavy drinker who was unable to hold down a job.

Harlow presented the first account of the changes in Gage's behavior following the accident. Where Gage had been described as energetic, motivated, and shrewd prior to the accident, many of his acquaintances explained that after the injury he was "no longer Gage."

Since there is little direct evidence of the exact extent of Gage's injuries aside from Harlow's report, it is difficult to know exactly how severely his brain was damaged. Harlow's accounts suggest that the injury did lead to a loss of social inhibition, leading Gage to behave in ways that were seen as inappropriate.

Some evidence suggests that many of the supposed effects of the accident may have been exaggerated and that Gage was actually far more functional than previously reported.

Severity of Gage's Brain Damage

In a 1994 study, researchers utilized neuroimaging techniques to reconstruct Phineas Gage's skull and determine the exact placement of the injury. Their findings indicate that he suffered injuries to both the left and right prefrontal cortices, which would result in problems with emotional processing and rational decision-making.

Another study conducted in 2004 used three-dimensional, computer-aided reconstruction to analyze the extent of Gage's injury. It found that the effects were limited to the left frontal lobe.

In 2012, new research estimated that the iron rod destroyed approximately 11% of the white matter in Gage's frontal lobe and 4% of his cerebral cortex.

Phineas Gage's Impact on Psychology

Gage's case had a tremendous influence on early neurology. The specific changes observed in his behavior pointed to emerging theories about the localization of brain function, or the idea that certain functions are associated with specific areas of the brain.

In those years, neurology was in its infancy. Gage's extraordinary story served as one of the first sources of evidence that the frontal lobe was involved in personality.

Today, scientists better understand the role that the frontal cortex has to play in important higher-order functions such as reasoning, language, and social cognition.

What Happened to Phineas Gage?

After the accident, Gage was unable to continue his previous job. According to Harlow, Gage spent some time traveling through New England and Europe with his tamping iron to earn money, supposedly even appearing in the Barnum American Museum in New York.

He also worked briefly at a livery stable in New Hampshire and then spent seven years as a stagecoach driver in Chile. He eventually moved to San Francisco to live with his mother as his health deteriorated.

After a series of epileptic seizures, Gage died on May 21, 1860, almost 12 years after his accident. Seven years after his death, Gage's body was exhumed. His brother gave his skull and the tamping rod to Dr. Harlow, who subsequently donated them to the Harvard University School of Medicine. They are still exhibited in its museum today.

Phineas Gage Summary

In 1948, Phineas Gage had a workplace accident in which an iron tamping rod entered and exited his skull. He survived but it is said that his personality changed as a result, leading to a greater understanding of the brain regions involved in personality, namely the frontal lobe.

A Word From Verywell

Gage's accident and subsequent experiences serve as a historical example of how case studies can be used to look at unique situations that could not be replicated in a lab. What researchers learned from Phineas Gage's skull and brain injury played an important role in the early days of neurology and helped scientists gain a better understanding of the human brain and the impact that damage could have on both functioning and behavior.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How did Phineas Gage die?

    Gage died from an epileptic seizure almost 12 years after the accident. These seizures started a few months before his passing, though his health had started to decline several months before the seizures began.

  • What part of the brain did Phineas Gage damage?

    The damage occurred to Phineas Gage's frontal lobe, the region of the brain at the front of the head. The frontal lobe plays a role in our ability to speak, make decisions, and move. It is also partially responsible for our personality.

  • How did Phineas Gage change after the accident?

    Post-accident, Gage's demeanor was said to have changed from pleasant to surly and he went from being a hardworking, motivated man to a man who had trouble keeping a steady job. Some reports suggest that Gage's personality changes were exaggerated, and that they may also have been temporary, fading a couple of years after the accident.

  • How long did Phineas Gage live after the accident?

    Phineas Gage lived almost 12 years after the rod pierced his skull. He died on May 21, 1860. This would make him just short of 37 years old at the time of his death.

  • Why is Phineas Gage important to psychology?

    Gage's accident helped teach us that different parts of the brain play a role in different functions. Through studying Gage's frontal lobe damage, we gained a better understanding of what the frontal cortex does with regard to personality. We also began to know more about the effects of frontal lobe damage and how it may change a person.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.