A rendering of the Gage skull with the best fit rod trajectory a

A computer model of the Gage skull showing a reconstruction of the most likely trajectory taken by the tamping rod (gray). The colored fibers represent white matter in the brain and show which ones would have been severed by the rod. On the right, another view of white matter fibers that were likely injured by the rod. (Slate)

Image courtesy Van Horn JD, Irimia A, Torgerson CM, Chambers MC, Kikinis R, et al.

Sean Kean, writing for Slate, describes why the famous “iron rod through the frontal lobes” case study is reinterpreted every generation according to the latest neuroscience developments. The personality/frontal lobes theory is probably overstated, since bone fragments and fungal infection could have destroyed other parts of Gage’s brain as well:

Because of all the uncertainty, Ratiu, the Bucharest doctor, recommends that neuroscientists stop teaching Gage. “Leave this damn guy alone,” he says. (Like Gage himself, people seem to indulge in “gross profanity” when discussing his case.) But this seems unlikely. Whenever teachers need an anecdote about the frontal lobes, “you just take this ace out of your sleeve,” Ratiu says. “It’s just like whenever you talk about the French Revolution you talk about the guillotine, because it’s so cool.”


If nothing else, Macmillan says, “Phineas’s story is worth remembering because it illustrates how easily a small stock of facts can be transformed into popular and scientific myth.”