Phineas Gages Accidental Scientific Discoveries Psychology

Many discoveries happen accidentally. This is the true story of a freak accidental injury to a railway worker by the name of Phineas Gage. The year was 1848, long before the sophisticated medical machines that doctors today have at his or her disposal. Phineas Gage is possibly the most famous person ever to survive such a severe injury to the brain. He is also the first patient from which medical and social science learned something about the relation between personality and the function of the frontal lobe of the human brain. In addition, Phineas Gage, cognitive psychology, was able to study the human brain and discovered many important functions relating to cognition, and neurosciences studies led to the understanding the importance of areas of the brain helping medical science also find answers about the workings of the brain.

The accident of Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage said to be an intelligent, successful supervisor working for Rutland and Burlington Railroad in Cavendish, Vermont, during the time he worked on the railroad it was common practice of pack areas with blasting powder to create holes in the preparation of laying track (Wickens, 2005). Gage well versed in using blasting powder and tamping rods before detonation. While working an unexpected explosion thrust a rod, measuring 1.1 meters long, six millimeters thick, and weighing six kilograms exploded. Driving the rod through his left cheek and through his brain, the rod protruded through his skull (Leach & O’Driscoll, 1998). Astonishingly, Gage men who witnessed the accident said he never lost consciousness on his way to the doctor, although that is impossible to validate as fact. Upon arrival, Dr. Harlow bandaged his wounds. Nevertheless, his wounds continued to bleed for two days. Gage did not show any mental problems at first. However, a viral infection began to damage areas of his brain most agree the infection is what caused the personality changes he suffered.  

For several weeks, Gage lingered in and out of a semiconscious state. The infection ran its course, and Gage made somewhat of a full recovery. He went blind in his left eye, the left side of his body became noticeably weaker, and the left side of his face showed some paralysis. Gage did his best to return to work yet his coworkers noticed differences in his personality. After his accident Gage was described as, “… feeble, being exceedingly capricious and childish, but with a will as indomitable as ever; is particularly obstinate; will not yield to restraint when it conflicts with his desires” (O’Driscoll & Leach, 1998, p. 1673).

Cognition, Neurology, and Prediction

Phineas Gage is an iconic legend in journals, books, and annals in the study of neurology. His injury, behavior, and recovery made many significant contributions to the study of early modern neurology. Gage’s injury was to the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is necessary to maintain and acquire specific knowledge, which is essential for regulating human behavior. Therefore, understanding the personality changes that Gage endured throughout his injury and recovery exhibited an underlying cognitive and neurological connection that both sciences could study and learn significant information about the inner working of the brain.

Theories of how the neurological, cognitive information and human emotions that intermingle in the nucleus accunbens (a collection of neurons) and plays a critical role in the area of the brain that denotes pleasure or reward circuit. The somatic-marker hypothesis, first suggested by A. Damasio, states that emotional reactions and feelings connect with responses that play a vital part in predicting long-term outcomes(Thagard & Wagar, 2004). Somatic markers act like energy for the cognitive interpretation of decision-making by stressing the outcome of a positive predictions and negating an outcome that has a negative prediction. Throughout the decision-making process, an organism can integrate affectively and relay information that should properly predict the eventual outcome of an event. After that, the area of Gage’s brain could no longer to form the memory traces necessary to relate memories to create affective information. He could no longer predict or understand the consequences of his actions. Gage’s inability to process information affectively took away the control of his emotions. His brain had lost its cognitive ability to connect memories, which would equate how his behavior would affect family, friends, and his surroundings. One example of his behavioral problems was his inability to control his unexpected use of profanity (O’Driscoll & Leach, 1998).

Phineas Gage’s Later Years

Reportedly, after Gage’s recovery he put himself on display in Barnum’s American Museum in New York City and New England towns. Many accounts of Gage became a drifter wandering from place to place unable to hold a job. He supported himself by appearing in freak show at fairs and circuses when he needed the money, never regaining a desire to work from early 1851 until his death nine years later. Gage gained employment in two places. One in a livery stable and coach business for one and half years, his other documented venture was in Chile in a similar position for close to seven years.  He drove coaches, possibly stagecoaches.  Gage could not to work a full day on his parent’s farm in 1849. When some saw him in Boston in November 1850, he was even more fragile and in poor health. His whereabouts are fabled, yet his funeral was on May 23, 1860 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).


Phineas Gage’s tragic accident gave medical neurological science and cognitive psychology the opportunity to answer questions of how the mind and body interact and what part of the brain controls certain functions. During a time when the both social and medical sciences put a large emphasis on finding answers on how the human brain functions. Having the opportunity to observe Gage proved extremely insightful in many areas in medical and the social sciences. The unusual case of Phineas Gage gave the sciences a glimpse without the use of the technology in use today. The specific damage to Gage’s brain would change his memory so that he could no longer integrate somatic markers. Therefore, his upper-level cognitive processes for making decisions no longer operated properly. These discoveries were a very significant step in the research of the human brain, all because of the freak accident Phineas Gage suffered. Because of his accident, important scientific knowledge was gained and all completed without sophisticated machinery available to science today.


Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (2000). Psychology, Phineas Gage. Retrieved from.

An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage:

O’Driscoll, K., & Leach, J. P. (December 1998). “No longer Gage”: an iron bar through the head.

British Medical Journal, 317(7174), 1673-1674. Retrieved from,

Thagard, P., & Wagar, B. M. (2004). Spiking Phineas Gage: A neurocomputational theory of cognitive-affective integration in decision

making. Psychological Review, 111(1), 67-69. doi:  EBSCOHost Database

Wickens, A. (2005). Foundations of biopsychology, 2nd (ed.). Upper Saddle River,

New Jersey, Pearson Hall