Serendipity: An antisocial accident
Simon Singh is an author, journalist and TV producer, specialising in science and Mathematics. His latest book is "Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial", co-authored with Edzard Ernst, the world’s first professor of complementary medicine.
Sunday 06 June 1999
However, as the weeks passed, his friends and colleagues realised that the accident had seriously affected his personality. He was described as "fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity which was not previously his custom, manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires".
Although the accident destroyed Gage's personal life, it resulted in a major breakthrough in the understanding of the brain. Scientists began to think of the brain as a series of modules, each one with different responsibilities. For example, the frontal lobes contain modules that control speech and motor functions, and also the modules that help people to behave rationally and interact socially. The rod had entered Gage's frontal lobes, leaving intact the bits that deal with speech and motor functions, but destroying the bits that made him sociable and rational.
Last year neuroscientists from all over the world gathered to mark the 150th anniversary of Gage's accident and to discuss his and similar cases. For example, in the early 1990s there was the case of "Elliot", who suffered from a brain tumour that pressurised and damaged his frontal lobes. After the tumour had been removed, he remained in control of all his physical faculties and scored highly on IQ tests, but he lacked social intelligence. Following years of success as a salesman, he lost his job, his wife divorced him, and a new business venture ended in bankruptcy.
The conference also discussed the various lines of research that Gage had inspired. Ann Streissguth at the University of Washington has been studying foetal alcohol syndrome, a range of conditions caused by exposure to alcohol while in the womb. The syndrome includes poor judgement and a lack of emotion, which was also true of Gage. Streissguth is currently testing the hypothesis that alcohol affects the frontal lobes in a way that is not dissimilar to the destruction caused by an iron rod.
Gage's accident created the science of behavioural biology and helped treat subsequent victims, but his own life was ruined. He could not hold down a job, he had to become a circus freak in order to survive and died at the age of 38. His skull can still be seen at the Warren Medical Museum of Harvard University.
MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word
Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says
Review: One Direction, Fourmusic
Review: The World of Ice and Firebooks
Film More romcom than S&M
Review: The Imitation Gamefilm
Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars
TVNetflix gets cryptic
TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth
Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 'Not suppost to cry': 9-year-old lists the worst things about being a boy
- 2 Iggy Azalea responds to Eminem rape lyrics: 'I'm bored of old men threatening young women'
- 3 Woman opens professional cuddling shop – gets 10,000 customers in first week
- 4 Lana Del Rey rape video: Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking leaked footage
- 5 Winnie the Pooh banned from Polish playground for being 'inappropriate hermaphrodite'
Lee Evans announces his retirement from comedy on The Jonathan Ross Show
Iggy Azalea responds to Eminem rape lyrics: 'I'm bored of old men threatening young women'
Angelina Jolie confirms retirement from acting: 'I've never been comfortable on-screen'
Lana Del Rey rape video: Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking leaked footage
Willow and Jaden Smith talk duality of apples, holographic realities and the melancholia of the ocean in incredible New York Times interview
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Muslims pre-date Columbus in discovering America,' says Turkish president Erdogan
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
Rochester by-election: Labour MP Emily Thornberry resigns after posting white van and England flags tweet
France 'blocks' Russian sailors from boarding a warship
Former Tory PM Sir John Major says 'we would not have an NHS without migrants'