Changing Personalities: The Curious Case Of Phineas Gage

Moha Walavalkar
Jul 06, 2019   •  141 views

“Oh my goodness! You are so moody!”

“You’ve changed so much! You are not the same person I knew before”

“You have such a different personality after that event. What happened to you?”

Ever heard these statements before? We’ve all either said them or been at the receiving end of it at some point of time in our life. Mood changes or personality changes have been commonly attributed to emotional upheavals, heartbreaks, negative experiences and mental trauma. However, contrary to public opinion, not all personality changes have a mental or emotional root. Sometimes, it can also be the effect of biological disorders or accidents involving the brain. One of the most famous cases of such an occurrence is the case of an American man, Phineas Gage.

Phineas Gage was a railroad workman working in the 19th century. He was a jolly and well-loved person. He was energetic and dedicated in his work and was adored by his employers. He was a strong, young man with no history of any mental illness. However, one accident changed him forever.

On the fateful day of 13th September 1848, an explosion resulted in an iron rod penetrating Gage’s face from the left side of his face, through his frontal lobe and out of his skull. The injury left him comatose for a few weeks. He recovered from it, but the injury left a permanent impact and he was no longer the same person as he was before.

The once soft-spoken man had now been transformed into one constantly exuding profanities, causing people to keep their distance. He had become extremely impatient and obstinate. His once steadfast and dedicated work performance had now changed to flitting goals which were mostly abandoned in a short time. His intellect had declined to one of a child. He was no longer the Phineas Gage people once looked up to and admired. He ultimately succumbed to epileptic seizures, a disorder that accompanied him in the last few years of his life as a result of the injury.

Dr Harry Harlow, a psychologist, gave the diagnosis of the severe personality change as a result of the damage to the left frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the part of the human brain which is responsible for most of the executive functions such as memory, cognition, problem solving and also is responsible for vision, language, etc. One of the most primary roles the frontal lobe plays is the determination of personality. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for judgement, emotional regulation and initiative. One can now understand why damage to the frontal lobe affected Mr. Gage’s personality.

Personality is something one also inherits genetically or due to one’s social background and upbringing. However, the biological determination of personality is never to be underestimated. Some people are biologically predisposed to have a moody behaviour. Personality changes have also been indicators of medical disorders and diseases such as brain tumours and lupus. PMS or pre menstrual syndrome has also known to cause major personality changes in women suffering from it.

The next time you point someone out for changing abruptly, dig a little deeper and you might just find they aren’t predisposed to be that way. They might have suffered an emotional or mental trauma, but there also might be some biological reasoning behind it, something that shouldn’t ever be ignored.

To know more about the case of Phineas Gage, you can visit this website: