The study of Cognitive Psychology relies in large part on neuroscientific data. Information derived from scans of the brain is used extensively to determine which parts of the brain are responsible for certain cognitive functions. The use of modern technology to scan the brains of patients affected by illness or other form of physical damage to the brain provides vital information about functions such as speech, language, and memory. Furthermore, scientists have also discovered that certain areas of the brain, when damaged in some way can alter or completely change the personality of an individual.
Brain Damage from Disease and Illness
As far back as the middle 1800s scientists discovered that when certain areas of the brain sustained damage, some cognitive functions were adversely affected or ‘disabled with little to no chance of recovery. For example, Paul Broca discovered that a patient, who had sustained injury to the left frontal lobe, was demonstrating difficulties with speech (Willingham, 2007, p. 50). Indeed, it is common knowledge today that stroke patients have difficulties with speech, memory or language skills relevant to the damaged areas. Disease and disorders too can have an impact on various cognitive functions, some of which restored with extensive rehabilitation.
The process of finding active areas of the brain is determined by measuring neuronal activity. Neuronal activity is caused by both chemical and electrical impulses (Willingham, 2007, p. 54), and the more neuronal activity observed in a particular area is an indication that the area is active, and associated with a certain task. For example, when a patient is asked to speak, add numbers, or recall information from many years ago, different areas of the brain indicate neuronal activity, relevant to a specific task. Some damaged areas may not completely repair themselves, although studies have shown that the brain is capable, to some extent, of rewiring itself. Some areas of the brain may become active to compensate for the damaged portion that has not able to return to its former state. Personality changes have been known to occur in some individuals who have suffered damaged to a part of their brain.
One fascinating account of personality change resulting from brain trauma is the story of Phineas Gage. Gage was a young, handsome gentleman who, according to those who knew him, had a pleasant demeanor and friendly personality. Employed by a railroad company, Gage was adept in his position as crew supervisor. One day, after packing dynamite, Gage sustained traumatic injuries from an iron rod that was thrust upward through his skull and wiped out a portion of the frontal cortex (Horne, 2001, p. 221).
Phineas Gage’s personality change allegedly caused problems with employment, but he went on to recover, aside from obvious physical scars on his face. The once pleasant young man had become conceited, and his change in employment was apparently due to adverse changes in personality and the inability to relate to others as he had done prior to his accident, the change could well have been incidental. Fortunately for the medical community, a new surgical resulted from observation of Phineas Gage’s brain injury. Scientists discovered that surgical intervention to the frontal lobes “might well be of benefit to those with various mental disorders, including depression” (Horne, 2001, p. 223). Dr. Egaz Muniz went on to perfect his surgical technique and in 1949 he was awarded the “Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology” (Horne, 2001, p. 223).
Thanks to the development of scanning technology, CT scans, fMRI, and Positron Emission Technology (PET), scientists can examine the brain in detail, and observe specific areas of the brain that have been affected by disease, accidents, and disorders. Researchers can determine levels of neuronal activity. These areas indicate the location of greatest according to the task being performed, and possible ways to devise medical interventions or therapy and rehabilitation programs according to the problem they observe. Unfortunately, rehabilitation is not always an option, yet the information collected can provide the basis for future research and the development of more complex technology and surgical techniques.
Horne, J. (2009). Frontal assault. Biologist, 56(4), 221-224.
Willingham, D. T. (2007). Cognition: The thinking animal (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall