The Curious Case of Phineas Gage

Having been distracted by extraterrestrials and the opposite sex in the last couple of entries, I want to return to my discussion of free will. In that regard, I’d like to start this entry by introducing you to the Curious Case of Phineas Gage (unlike the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, this is a true story).

TrainIn the year 1848, Phineas Gage was employed as the foreman of a railway construction crew that was building the railway bed for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad in central Vermont. The terrain required cutting through several large rocky outcrops. This was accomplished by drilling holes deep into the rock, and then filling them with explosive powder. A fuse would then be placed in the powder and the rest of the whole filled up with sand. The sand was “tamped” down to pack it tightly so the force of the blast would be directed against the stone. Gage was responsible for determining where the holes would be located and how much powder to use.

At 4:30 p.m on Wednesday, September 13th, Gage was preparing for a blasting near Cavendish, Vermont.
Apparently distracted, Gage began tamping the powder before the sand had

Left: Reconstruction of the trajectory of the tamping iron. Right: Gage's skull.

Left: Reconstruction of the trajectory of the tamping iron. Right: Gage's skull.

been poured. A spark, generated by the tamping iron striking the rock, ignited the powder and the tamping iron was propelled like a rocket out of the blasting hole, entering Gage’s head under his left cheekbone and exiting through the top of his head, ultimately landing some 25 yards (23 metres) away!

Remarkably, Gage survived the blast. His workers carried him to an ox-cart and he was driven to the Cavendish Inn where he was staying. Astonishingly, Gage alighted from the cart unaided, and, from a chair on the verandah, recounted his story to bystanders. Gage was attended to by Drs. Higginson Williams and John Marlow. Within three months, he had recovered sufficiently to be able to move back to his parent’s farm. By the end of 1849, he was ready to seek employment. Gage, however, was unable to return to his job as a foreman, and over the next several years worked a variety of jobs, including stints as an attraction at the Barnum’s American Museum in New York and on the lecture circuit at major cities in New England. He died in 1860.

For my purposes, what I want to focus on is the personality changes that occurred in Gage subsequent to his injury.

The damage to Gage’s brain seems to have been largely contained to his left prefrontal cortex, an area that is linked closely with personality. While he retained full possession of his reasoning abilities, his wife and others soon began to notice dramatic changes in his personality.

One of the doctors who had initially attended to him, John Harlow, wrote a summary report of the changes in Gage’s personality and behaviour subsequent to his injury, published in an 1868 issues of the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Medical Society:

His contractors, who regarded him as the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ previous to his injury, considered the change in his mind so marked that they could not give him his place again. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not his previous custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinent, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage.’

Phineas Gage holding the tamping iron that shot through his brain.

Phineas Gage holding the tamping iron that shot through his brain.

Gage’s story is now famous for being one of the first documented cases using brain damage as a means of exploring neurology. It is also a remarkable example of the link between personality, behaviour, and the brain. Since Gage’s time, examples have multiplied of how brain damage or disease can lead to radically altered behaviour. Here is a very short list of some of these:

  • impaired decision-making capacity
  • impulsivity
  • inability to obey normal social conventions
  • hyper-spirituality in previously non-religious individuals
  • aggression, anger or hostility
  • inability to tolerate frustrations
  • lack of sexual restraint
  • excessive emotionalism

So, what has this got to do with my previous blog entry concerning free will?

Simply put, the dysfunctional behaviour that often results from brain injury or disease is strong evidence that the state of one’s “will” is directly controlled by the state of one’s brain. In other words, one’s will is causally determined not free. There is no “mind” that exists separate from the brain that is able to somehow override external and internal causation. Minds are what brains do. And what the brain is doing is entirely determined by both internal (genetic and neurological) and external (environmental) factors.

In the next entry, I’ll finish this tri-partite series on free will by exploring some common objections/concerns to the idea that we do not possess ultimate free will and some of the positive implications of this view.


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