Phineas Gage by John Fleischman

As part of my study into emotional intelligence I’ve read this short but well illustrated book on Phineas Gage, a railway-construction foreman who lost a large part of his prefrontal cortex in a blasting accident at the age of 26. A sad and tragic story, and even though Fleishman tries to put an upbeat spin on things (telling us that Phineas was lucky because he “found a way to live as a new person” for the next eleven years and that he “died with his family around him”) this only serves to make the depressing reality stand out all the more. Not to knock Fleischman, as his writing was clear, entertaining, and laid out the facts of this story that before now I only knew the outline of, but Phineas Gage was not lucky.

It starts in 1848 when during a blasting accident Phineas has a tamping iron shot through his skull, taking a piece of his profrontal cortex with it. Remarkably, he survives for the next decade but as a changed person. Whereas before the accident he was self-disciplined and responsible, leading a group of construction workers as their foreman. Afterwards he became impulsive, disagreeable, profane, and had an inability to stick to plans and evaluate long term consequences.

Here’s my main takaway from this. Most all the rest of us have our prefrontal cortices intact, yet we don’t make full use of them because we don’t try. Phineas had an excuse, we don’t. Moreover, he proved that a human being can walk around not using this powerful brain area and that superficially, they will seem normal.and still be able to survive and meet their own basic needs. It’s just like if someone decided not to read anything. If all of a sudden one day we just said “you know what, I’m just not going to read things anymore, not signs, not books, not labels. Nothing. I’m no longer using this skill” We would still seem normal and it would only be after someone had hung around us for a while that they would pick up on the fact we weren’t reading, even though obviously we’d be at a huge disadvantage to our fellow human beings.

I believe the prefrontal cortex is like that. It’s a state-of-the-art development in evolution that can serve as a powerful tool to increase our health and happiness. Yet, it takes effort and focus to apply it. I also believe it’s just like any other mental activity, what you use, you gain in, what you neglect you lose. Right now, the only goal of my life is to increase the power of the part of my brain I still have, that Phineas Gage was so unfortunate to lose. I believe if I can do this, it will not necessarily make me rich, but prevent me from being poor and unhappy. I’m trying to see it not as a means to an end, but the end in itself.

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