Unlocking the mind

In 1848, Phineas Gage was working as a railroad foreman in Vermont, when dynamite accidentally went off, propelling a three-foot, seven-inch spike straight into his face, through the front part of his brain, and out the top of his skull, eventually landing eighty feet away. His fellow workers, shocked to see part of their foreman’s brain blown off, immediately called for a doctor. To the workers’ (and even the doctor’s) amazement, Mr. Gage did not die on-site.

He was semiconscious for weeks, but eventually made what seemed like a full recovery. (A rare photograph of Gage surfaced in 2009, showing a handsome, confident man, with an injury to his head and left eye, holding the iron rod.) But after this incident, his coworkers began to notice a sharp change in his personality. A normally cheerful, helpful foreman, Gage became abusive, hostile, and selfish. Ladies were warned to stay clear of him. Dr. John Harlow, the doctor who treated him, observed that Gage was “capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, yet with the animal passions of a strong man. Dr. Harlow noted that he was “radically changed” and that his fellow workers said that “he was no longer Gage.” After Gage’s death in 1860, Dr. Harlow preserved both his skull and the rod that had smashed into it. Detailed X-ray scans of the skull have since confirmed that the iron rod caused massive destruction in the area of the brain behind the forehead known as the frontal lobe, in both the left and right cerebral hemispheres.

“This incredible accident would not only change the life of Phineas Gage, it would alter the course of science as well. Previously, the dominant thinking was that the brain and the soul were two separate entities, a philosophy called dualism. But it became increasingly clear that damage to the frontal lobe of his brain had caused abrupt changes in Gage’s personality. This, in turn, created a paradigm shift in scientific thinking: perhaps specific areas of the brain could be traced to certain behaviors.

In 1861, just a year after Gage’s death, this view was further cemented through the work of Pierre Paul Broca, a physician in Paris who documented a patient who appeared normal except that he had a severe speech deficit. The patient could understand and comprehend speech perfectly, but he could utter only one sound, the word “tan.” After the patient died, Dr. Broca confirmed during the autopsy that the patient suffered from a lesion in his left temporal lobe, a region of the brain near his left ear. Dr. Broca would later confirm twelve similar cases of patients with damage to this specific area of the brain. Today patients who have damage to the temporal lobe, usually in the left hemisphere, are said to suffer from Broca’s aphasia. (In general, patients with this disorder can understand speech but cannot say anything, or else they drop many words when speaking.)”

Soon afterward, in 1874, German physician Carl Wernicke described patients who suffered from the opposite problem. They could articulate clearly, but they could not understand written or spoken speech. Often these patients could speak fluently with correct grammar and syntax, but with nonsensical words and meaningless jargon. Sadly, these patients often didn’t know they were spouting gibberish. Wernicke confirmed after performing autopsies that these patients had suffered damage to a slightly different area of the left temporal lobe.

The works of Broca and Wernicke were landmark studies in neuroscience, establishing a clear link between behavioral problems, such as speech and language impairment, and damage to specific regions of the brain.

Another breakthrough took place amid the chaos of war. Throughout history, there were many religious taboos prohibiting the dissection of the human body, which severely restricted progress in medicine. In warfare, however, with tens of thousands of bleeding soldiers dying on the battlefield, “it became an urgent mission for doctors to develop any medical treatment that worked. During the Prusso-Danish War in 1864, German doctor Gustav Fritsch treated many soldiers with gaping wounds to the brain and happened to notice that when he touched one hemisphere of the brain, the opposite side of the body often twitched. Later Fritsch systematically showed that, when he electrically stimulated the brain, the left hemisphere controlled the right side of the body, and vice versa. This was a stunning discovery, demonstrating that the brain was basically electrical in nature and that a particular region of the brain controlled a part on the other side of the body. (Curiously, the use of electrical probes on the brain was first recorded a couple of thousand years earlier by the Romans. In the year A.D. 43, records show that the court doctor to the emperor Claudius used electrically charged torpedo fish, which were applied to the head of a patient suffering from severe headaches.)

Excerpt From: Michio Kaku. “The Future of the Mind.” iBooks.