Happy Birthday, Phineas!

Phineas Gage

So yesterday, it turns out, was the birthday of Phineas Gage. If you DON'T know who Phineas Gage was, you have either been living under a rock for the past twenty years, or you have ABSOLUTELY NO INTEREST WHATSOEVER in human behavior and/or neurobiology. I happen to be somewhat interested in these topics, but to be honest I am getting a little tired of them trotting out poor winking Phineas whenever they want to make a point about impulse control in the human brain.




I was first introduced to Mr. Gage's story during some show on PBS--perhaps NOVA, though to be honest it was probably well over twenty years ago, so who knows. Like most of those programs, in addition to the animated computer models they had the live-n-lurid reenactment of the TERRIBLE railroad accident that left Phineas such a celebrity, and the horror of said incident reenacted left a lasting impression on my own otherwise relatively undamaged brain. Since then--I tend to be a fan of nonfiction--I have bumped into him fairly regularly. Indeed, if you do an Ngram search of his name you can see a sudden uptick in interest in his case around the turn of the century:

Phineas Ngram

And now, lately, I can't seem to get away from the guy. I have just finished slogging through some 38 hours of audiobook that is THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE by Stephen Pinker, and somewhere in the middle of this GIANT TOME there's good ol' Phineas waving and winking at me once again from the wilds of Vermont. Which makes sense, okay, since the entire premise of the book is that mankind is historically becoming less violent, and part of the lessening of this violence comes from improved self control, which poor Phineas lost along with a good-sized chunk of his brain. (Yeah, this is the sort of book Mojo actually LIKES to read, or listen to.)

So anyway, just last week I finished this 38-hour monster and decided my next book would be more light and fluffy. I chose Kelly McGonigal's THE WILLPOWER INSTINCT, partly because I had read Jane McGonigal's REALITY IS BROKEN a few years back and I was surprised to see that Jane McGonigal was a Stanford professor, since I thought she was a game designer. It turns out I had confused my Irish lasses: Jane McGonigal is, as I THOUGHT, a game designer, whereas KELLY McGonigal is a psychologist/Stanford professor AND, it turns out, Jane's identical twin sister. So there ya go, weird connections in this world, blah blah blah. (I'm mildly interested in game design because--surprise, surprise--game design, like ye olde advertising days of yore, kinda messes with your brain to entice you to do things.) Anyway, I start listening to this audiobook this morning, and it turns out (of course) will power is all about impulse control, which led to the following exchange between my running iPod and myself as I was driving along within the first fifteen minutes or so of starting said book:

IPOD: "How important is the prefrontal cortex for self control? One way to answer that question is to look at what happens when you lose it. The most famous case of prefrontal cortex brain damage..."


IPOD: "...is the story of Phineas Gage..."

So I can't get rid of the guy, it seems. So a belated happy birthday, Phineas. And let's remind people that, despite your terrible accident that everyone keeps yammering about, you actually retrained your brain and in a few short years rewired and regained most of your self-control, and once more became a productive member of society. Hooray for neuroplasticity!