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Phineas Gage Personality: It's All in Your Head

Updated on March 7, 2018
michelleonly3 profile image

M. D. Jackson has studied psychology since 1989. While her specialty is family relations, she also loves neuroscience and behaviorism.


Phineas Gage

Seldom does science discover on purpose, what is better discovered by accident. For thousands of years ideas about the brain have evolved from superstition to science, from research to discovery. It is completely by accident that we discover basic truths about the brains ability to operate and heal. The accident happened in 1848 when a railway foreman named Phineas Gage had a metal rod shot through his head while he was compacting explosives. Phineas Gage’s miraculous survival of this accident would stun the medical community. The changes in Gage’s ability to function brought the world of psychology to a whole new train of thought.

The Accident That Changed Psychology

One might ask what the unusual accident of Phineas Gage has to do with psychology. Cognitive psychology deals with how the mind processes sight, quantative thoughts, and speech. The rod that passed through Gage’s head removed or damaged the frontal lobe of his brain. The rod was 1.25 inches thick and almost four feet long. The speed the rod was traveling when it passed through Gages head is unknown however. The rod managed to take pieces of Gage’s frontal lobe and dislodge them from his head. This unscheduled brain surgery would change Phineas Gage forever. After the accident Gage had a marked change in personality, deductive reasoning, and ability to handle aggression. These changes would push psychology to admit the physical elements of psychology were just as important as the environmental aspects of psychology.

Establishing Abilities

Prior to the accident Phineas Gage was described as intelligent, responsible, and hardworking. John M Harrow, Gage’s physician described him prior to the accident as “25 years of age, ofmiddle stature, vigorous physical organization, temperate habits,and possessed of considerable energy of character”. People who knew Phineas were obviously impressed with him as a person. He was a railway foreman which required organization skills as well as the ability to effectively lead others. It is only through those who knew him that we can establish Phinease Gage’s level of cognitive thought as there was not any documentation of Gage’s abilities prior to the accident. It is a reasonable assumption from all account a that he was a bright young man with an amiable temper.

Brain Damage

Harrow treated Gage’s initial injury stating that the anterior left lobe, coronal, and sagittal structures were all damaged by the rod. The anterior left lobe is responsible for a person’s speech, short term memory, visual memory, and calculated thought processes. In a stroke victim, damage to this areas has been known to leave them unable to recognize loved ones or remember places. The loss of short term memory negates a person’s ability to functions properly as an employee. Logical thought process is something people use everyday, Phineas Gage no longer had the ability to think logically after the accident. He did not return to the railroad as an employee.

According to Doctor Harrow Phineas Gage was coherent when Dr Harrow arrived at the accident. Gage knew who Dr. Harrow was at that point in time. This fact would indicate that it was the infection that occurred after the accident that caused the damage to Gage’s ability to visually recognize people. People close to Gage stated that after the accident his entire personality changed. He was no longer able to think in a logical manner. These changes caused issues for Gage until he died.

Daniel Amen TED talk


Implications of Brain Injury

Today the psychology field and neuroscience have concluded that damage to certain parts of the brain result in various deficiencies. Physical issues such as tumors, strokes, and aneurisms can impede the ability of the brain to function properly. New Computed Tomography (CAT scan) technology allows damage to the brain tissue, tumors, and stroke damage. Since we know that physical problems in the brain can cause serious behavioral problems, shouldn’t changes in behavior be an indicator that a scan should be completed to advise of the cause? It would seem logical that psychology would welcome the advances in modern medicine. However, psychology as a whole is years from embracing CT scans in diagnosis. In fact Ct scans are not widely used in the psychology field with the exception of extreme cases.

Science Verses Status Quo

Although Phineas Gage opened the physical verses mental debate in 1848, the science of diagnosing disorders from a CT scan is a long way from becoming the normal more of operation. Determining mental disorders through CT scans has the implications of ending unnecessary medication within the psychiatric community. While some will argue that Ct scans are costly, the improper and overuse of medications is a expensive price to pay for missed diagnosis. Hopefully in the future the medical and psychiatric community will come together to diagnose and treat those with disorders.


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    • michelleonly3 profile imageAUTHOR

      MD Jackson MSIOP 

      23 months ago from Western United States

      @Jessie Watson

      We know from the headaches that he was having, and the size of the tumor that it may have been cutting off blood flow through his brain and could have had an adverse effect on all his functions, including the left frontal lobe. Without an FMRI is would be difficult to determine if his brain was functioning normally. With a tumor that size putting pressure in all directions, I am guessing Watson was experiencing symptoms that were not noticeable to anyone else.

    • Jessie L Watson profile image

      Jessie Watson 

      23 months ago from Wenatchee Washington

      I've actually had some difficulty figuring out which part of Whitman's brain the tumor affected. Some sources say it was in the anterior cingulate which is slightly inferior to the medial PFC while other sources say the tumor was encroaching on the amygdala. Both of which could possibly explain the irrational thoughts and behavior. One thing we can't figure out for sure is why he couldn't gain any executive control even after reporting having violent thoughts. Seeing as though the PFC is involved in executive function, it would seem intuitive to look there but I think a cascading effect can be just as consequential if having started somewhere else in the brain.

    • michelleonly3 profile imageAUTHOR

      MD Jackson MSIOP 

      23 months ago from Western United States

      The frontal left lobe is so sensitive to any changes. It's sad that a tumor can literally make a person violent yet this is never checked when a person behaves that way. Charles Whitman taught us that at the first sign of those personality changes we should investigate. I've wondered if that wasn't what happened with Stephen Paddock.

    • Jessie L Watson profile image

      Jessie Watson 

      23 months ago from Wenatchee Washington

      Also, consider the case of Charles Whitman in 1966

    • Justin02 profile image


      23 months ago



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