Monday, May 31, 2010

Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science

Don't let the gruesome book cover scare you off! This is the amazing story of a construction forman who survived for 11 years after a 13 pound iron tamping rod shot through his brain.

This book teaches so much about the brain and how we came to understand brain science. You will find yourself constantly repeating "is this really true?"

Imagine that you are Mr. Gage himself. The year is 1848 and you're just an average railroad construction foreman. Your job consists of blasting rock out of the way of the construction, allowing further tracks to be laid. You're good at your job, and you've a custom-made tamping iron (thirteen-pound rod with a pointed end) to help you out.

Then, on September 13, 1848, you mess up. It could happen to anyone. One moment you're putting the highly combustible blasting powder down a hole. The next minute you've turned your head in distraction and you've dropped your tamping iron down that selfsame hole. The iron hits a piece of granite, produces a spark, and suddenly the iron has ripped through your left cheek, gone behind your left eyeball, and come up through the top of your head. There's blood everywhere, brains on the iron, and a very surprised Phineas Gage sitting in the midst of it all. You'd think a blast like that would kill a man, right? Wrong. Phineas not only is fine, he making entries into his time book as he goes to town for the doctor.

When the doctor isn't around, he then sits on the front steps of a nearby hotel and has a lengthy conversation with his landlord. All the while there's blood everywhere and a clear view into Phineas's head to his brains.

Is Phineas completely unchanged by the experience? Not quite. Though he lives for quite some time after the accident, Phineas suddenly is bereft of all his social skills. Why is this? What does it mean about the brain itself? And why did Phineas live?

There is plenty of gore in this book but there is also a lot of sound scientific information for questioning young minds. For those kids more interested in the accident itself, Phineas's skull is displayed throughout the book. You can clearly make out where the hole once was, as well as how it healed over time. Digitally rendered graphs show exactly how the tamping iron entered Mr. Gage's head and how it excited. Historical information about the state of brain science in the late 1800's is coupled with what we know (and still do not know) now. The book is filled with interesting photographs, graphs, and illustrations. For further information there's a great list of resources, as well as a fabulous glossary, and a complete index.

I got my copy of this book from Paperback Swap. It is also available at Amazon.