|Vol. 4, No. 4, 1998 Page 3|
This year is the 150th anniversary of one of the world's most important on-the-job accidents. The accident injured only one worker, but it made medical history-and it taught us volumes about how the brain controls emotions and behavior.
On September 13, 1848, railroad worker Phineas Gage was tamping blasting powder into a hole, using a three-and-a-half foot iron rod, when the powder exploded. The rod shot through Gage's skull, entering his left cheek and exiting through the top of his head.
Amazingly, Gage survived this massive injury. In fact, one observer reported that Gage was able to walk away from the accident, "talking with composure and equanimity of the hole in his head."
The long-term effects of Gage's accident, however, were devastating. Previously a polite and sociable gentleman, Gage became an antisocial, foul-mouthed, irresponsible, bad-mannered lout and unrepentant liar. According to his friends, he was "no longer Gage." He drifted from job to job, finally dying penniless.
While Gage's life was ruined, his unfortunate accident taught researchers about the critical role of the brain's frontal lobes-the area of Gage's brain injured by the iron bar that penetrated his skull-in controlling behavior, emotions, and judgment. Later studies proved that injuries to the frontal lobes, or diseases that damage this brain area, can cause disinhibited behavior, poor judgment, and even antisocial or criminal behavior.
Antonio Damasio and colleagues, who have studied a dozen patients with frontal lobe damage similar to Gage's, say that the patients are incapable of planning for the future, and are deficient in judgment, reasoning ability, and "moral insight." Other research links frontal lobe dysfunction to aggression, alcoholism, and psychopathic criminality, and suggests that the deviant behavior seen in many children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome may stem from damage to this brain area.