Will the Real Phineas Gage Please Step Forward?

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Originally posted on May 27, 2014.

Psychology is ripe with history. Unlike many sciences, psychology grips us because we are its main characters. People have more experience with quarrels than with quarks. But one of psychology’s most famous case studies continues to evolve. So, I ask, will the real Phineas Gage please step forward?

The name Phineas Gage might not perk up a person’s ears as easily as Freud, Bandura, or Skinner. But the story of Phineas Gage occupies precious real estate in most psychology textbooks. He showed the world that people can survive a major brain trauma. Yet understanding his post-accident life grows fuzzier over time.

In a recent article that foreshadows the upcoming book, “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons,” Sam Stein argues that what we think we know about the most famous name in neuroscience needs historical revision. Did Gage really become a psychopath? Why do people ignore Gage’s major life events, such as when he tried to make a new life in Chile?

We’ll never know the true Phineas Gage. The riddle will always be partly unsolved. That isn’t such a bad thing. Sifting through material will inspire new questions—with the hope that they will inform how we understand friends, loved ones, or the many others who have suffered traumatic brain injuries.

About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”