Phineas Gage

Cognition refers to the mental processes associated with knowledge, including memory, thinking, and reasoning (Galotti, 2014).  Researchers have spent many years trying to figure out the different levels of explanation for cognitive functioning in the brain, which has proven to be intricate and tedious to define the level of functioning for individual neurons (Galotti, 2014  ).  Researchers believe it is vital to understand the roles of the different areas of the brain in order to understand the role of the brain in cognition.  The accident experienced by Phineas Gage revealed new information about how areas of the brain affect cognitive functioning.

Role of Brain in Cognitive Functioning

Different areas of the brain are responsible for different functions giving reason to know the anatomy of the brain.  The hindbrain is the lowest portion of the brain, located at the rear of the skull and includes the pons, medulla, and the cerebellum (Galotti, 2014  ).  These structures are responsible for the relay of information, life support functions, and coordinating muscular activity (Galotti, 2014  ).  The midbrain, the arousal area,  is found in the central area of the brain and is responsible for the transmission of information within the brain itself (Galotti, 2014 ).

The forebrain, the area most widely studied for cognitive functioning, is the largest area of the brain located at the front of the skull (Galotti, 2014  ).  This area contains the thalamus, responsible for relaying information to the cerebral cortex, and the hypothalamus is responsible for hormone release and maintaining homeostasis within the body.  Also included is the hippocampus, responsible for long-term memory and the amygdala, responsible for the emotional strength of memories (Galotti, 2014  ).  Additionally, this area contains the cerebral cortex responsible for transmitting information throughout the cortex (Galotti, 2014  ).

The cerebral cortex contains a division of four lobes.  The parietal lobe includes the somatosensory cortex responsible for processing sensory information, such as touch and temperature from the body (Galotti, 2014 ).  The occipital lobe is the visual processing area (Galotti, 2014 ).  The temporal lobe aids in processing memory (Galotti, 2014 ).  The frontal lobe contains three sections:  the premotor cortex plans the fine motor movements carried out by the motor cortex.  The third section, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functioning that manages cognitive process in the brain.  These processes include inhibiting undesired behavior and maintain personality (Galotti, 2014  ).

Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage was a railroad construction foreman in Vermont who had suffered an accident that should have left him dead (Grieve, 2010).  A tamping iron about three feet seven inches long, one and a quarter inches in diameter, and weighing about thirteen pounds launched through Gages skull landing about eighty-two feet away from the accident (grieve, 2010).  The accident resulted in an orbitofrontal lobotomy, with no surgical procedure which destroyed his left frontal lobe and left him without a left eye and as a new man in general (McMillan, 2010).

Prior to the accident, Gage was held in high regard as a shrewd, businessman and foreman, with an even temper, quiet, reserved, and energetic (Grieve, 2010).  Post-accident, Gage was socially inept, giving way to conflicts, unfocused on goals, and had a new tendency to use obscene language (Macmillan, 2010).  Phineas Gage became a new man.  Phineas was soon well enough to return to work on the railroad, however, was denied employment because he no longer portrayed a solid, knowledgeable and patient foreman (McMillan, 2010).  Eventually, Gage became a coach driver in Chile, that demonstrates that he was still able to learn a new trade, and he had demonstrated an improvement in his social skills (McMillan, 2010).

This traumatic brain injury suffered by Phineas Gage sparked new theories and research on traumatic brain injuries as well as the control the brain has over a behavior.  Researchers were curious to find out exactly what areas of the brain impact what aspects of life.  Gage survived for twelve years after the accident, but developed severe epilepsy which eventually brought him home to his mother (Grieve, 2010).  He lived with his mother for a brief period, until epilepsy, developed from his injury, took his life in San Fransisco in 1860 (Grieve, 2010).

Brain Support of Cognition

The case of Phineas Gage led to the idea of localization, or the thought that different areas of the brain controlled different functions of the brain (  ).  The tamping iron tore through only the frontal lobes of the brain.  The fact that Gage was able to remain in a “normal,” conscious stature after the accident implied that motor  and muscular functioning, as well as life support functions, were unaffected by the accident.  The fact that there are records of severe behavior and personality changes post-accident led researchers to make the assumptions of localization ( ).

The idea of localization and the idea behavior and personality were functions controlled in the frontal lobes, led to the belief that lobectomies could potentially be a benefit to those suffering from behavior or mental disorders, known as psychosurgery (“The University of Akron,” 2014). Researchers later found that lobectomies were erroneous and caused greater damage than good and that the reenactment of Gage’s injury never proved possible with recovery evident in the future.  What researchers did learn was that the frontal lobes are responsible for higher executive function in areas such as learning, personality, memory, and comprehension of actions (“The University of Akron,” 2014).


The manner in which the brain functions have proven to be difficult in learning.  Through the use of a terrible accident that rightfully should have rendered a man dead, researchers have been able to begin a more in-depth understanding of behavior and how it results from mental processes localized to certain areas of the brain. The case of Phineas Gage opened doors to theories and experiments which have made great strides to conclude that the brain fully supports cognitive functioning localized to a specific area.  Researchers now know which areas to probe and manipulate in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness and brain injury.



Galotti, K. M. (2014). Cognitive Psychology: In and Out of the Laboratory, (5th ed.). Retrieved from The University of Phoenix eBook Collection database..

Grieve, A. W. (2010). Phineas P gage – ‘the man with the iron bar’. Trauma, 12(3), 171-174. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1460408610375648

McMillan, M., & Lena, M.  L., (2010).  Rehabilitating Phineas Gage.  Neuropsychological Rehabilitation.  20(5), 641-658. doi:  10.1080/09602011003760527

The University of Akron. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.uakron.edu/gage/lobotomy.dot



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