A famous brain story needs some nuance: was Phineas Cage a brute?

I’m reading Great Myths of The Brain by Christian Jarett and one of the topics is a famous neurocase that me too has told to my students, the case of Phineas P. Gage.

A short description on Wikipedia:

…was an American railroad construction foreman remembered for his improbable survival of an accident in which a large iron rod was driven completely through his head, destroying much of his brain’s left frontal lobe, and for that injury’s reported effects on his personality and behavior over the remaining twelve years of his life—​effects so profound that (for a time at least) friends saw him as “no longer Gage.”

But the story isn’t free of some mythology in its own. The basis idea often told in textbooks is that the personality of Phineas changed for good to brute & violent and that he became part of a freak show. This happened but only the first one or two years. Report of Gage’s physical and mental condition shortly before his death implies that his most serious mental changes were actually temporary. In later life he was probably far more functional and socially far better adapted than the textbook stories tell.  The man became a stagecoach driver in Chile and researchers now think that this provided daily structure allowing him to relearn lost social and personal skills. He only went book to his family to die.

Much more on this story is in the book by Jarett. I have read the first half of the book now, and it seems to be a possible #Mustread.

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Filed under Myths, Review

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