The Brain, Cognitive Function and Phineas Gage
“For well over a century, scientists have recognized that all the wonders of the mind are the province of the brain” (Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, n.d., paragraph 1). Researchers have been studying what role the brain plays in cognitive function. The connection is more evident when the brain is dysfunctional (Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, n.d.). The Phineas Gage accident provides insight into the ways cognitive function is affected, even over a century later. Modern research provides a glimpse into the brain and functioning from injuries such as Gage’s.
The Brain and Cognitive Functions
Each part of the brain has a special role in cognitive functions (Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, n.d.). Some aspects of cognition that take place in the brain include perception, attention, emotion, planning learning, memory, thinking, and language. In order to study the role of the brain in these functions, researchers study normal brains and damaged brains. In normal brains the performance of cognitive tasks are compared to the deficits of performance in damaged brains (Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, n.d.). The results of these studies aid researchers in developing theories on how cognitive functions are organized within the brain. The Phineas Gage injury is one case researchers study to learn more about the brain and cognition.
Phineas Gage Accident
On September 13, 1848 Phineas Gage suffered a traumatic brain injury. While working as a foreman for the Rutland and Burlington railroad, he suffered the penetrating head injury. A four foot long iron rod went through his skull. The initial report was that both frontal lobes were damaged. However, using modern computerized tomography (CT) scanning on the skull, it has been reported that the left frontal lobe was the primarily affected area (Grieve, 2010). There are several functions of the frontal lobes. One function is the choosing between good and bad actions. Other functions include suppressing inappropriate social responses, understanding future consequences resulting from current actions and retaining long term memories. The Phineas Gage injury offered researchers much insight into the brain as related to cognitive function.
What was Learned about the Brain and Cognitive Function
Traumatic brain injuries (TBI’s) cause several changes in a person. These changes include behavioral, social, and emotional (Spitz, Rudzki, & Maller, 2012). Before the accident, Gage was hard – working and cautious. After the accident, he became irresponsible, drank heavily, and drifted from one wild scheme to another (McGraw - Hill, 2011). Researchers believe this is due to injury to the association areas. The association areas are a major region of the cerebral cortex and the site of higher mental processes. The association areas control functions such as executive, planning, goal setting, judgment, and impulse control. There are personality changes after a type of injury like Gage’s. These changes include careless attitudes, taking risks, changes in sociability, unusual sexual habits as well as others (Grieve, 2010). People with these types of injuries have difficulties with functions like memory, information – processing speed and executive functions. These personality changes affect a person’s ability to make moral judgments. However, the person can still be able to reason logically.
Phineas Gage suffered from a traumatic brain injury that even in these days would be considered a sure fatality (Grieve, 2010). Phineas survived the injury but not without cognitive damage. Over the last century, researchers have learned more about Gage’s injury. Technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans has revealed more about the injury and parts of the brain affected. Because of Gage’s injury, researchers have learned more about the brain and how it affects cognitive function.
Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition. (n.d.). Research in the CNBC. Retrieved from http://www.cnbc.cmu.edu/research
Grieve, A. (2010). Phineas P Gage - 'The Man with the Iron Bar'. Trauma, 12(3), 171-174.
McGraw - Hill (2011). Psychsmart. New York, NY: Author.
Spitz, G., Rudzki, J. L., & Maller, J. J. (2012). Association between cognitive performance and functional outcome following traumatic brain injury: A longitudinal multilevel examination. Neuropsychology, 26(5), 604-612. doi:10:1037/a0029239
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