The man that survived a spike through the brain

Imagine that you are a happy-go-lucky 24 year old, working for the railroad. It’s not a bad job – you get to work outside, stay fit, have a group of men at your command, and they even let you work with explosives!

It’s an adventurous story you imagine telling your grandchildren about one day.

Part of your job is blowing up rock. It’s a simple process that works like this:

  1. Place explosive into a bored hole, with the fuse coming out the hole.
  2. Fill the hole with sand, and compress it down by using a tamping iron (a 1.1 metre long metal spike).
  3. Light the fuse and get the hell out of there.

It was late in the day, around 4:30, and the explosives had been placed. There are people working behind you, and they probably shouldn’t be, you’re working with explosives after all. You lean forward a bit, turn your head to the right, open your mouth to tell them something…

Ok, let’s freeze-frame a second and have a look at what’s a happening this that whole in front of you shall we?

At some point when you were tamping down the sand with your trusty tamping iron, there was a subtle spark off the side of the rock. This spark touched a part of the exposed fuse, and started quickly burning it’s way through the sand, towards the black powder.

Ok, resume positions.

“What are those guys doing over there?!” you think to yourself.


You wake up. There are men all around you shouting. You can hardly make out what they’re saying, because your ears are ringing.

Something doesn’t feel right with your face. Your head feels somehow distorted.

There’s something wrong.

Oh God.

You tongue the roof of your mouth.  There’s a big hole.

Oh dear God.

The tamping iron!

Oh God. Oh God. Oh God….


This is what doctors think was a possible trajectory for the tamping iron, through Phineas Gage’s head.

Miraculously, Phineas survived the incident, and within a few minutes was able to talk, and with a little help, made his way to an oxcart to take him 1.2km to the nearest doctor.

Dr. Edward Williams, found Phineas, sitting in a chair outside a hotel, about half an hour after his injury.

“When I drove up he said, “Doctor, here is business enough for you.” I first noticed the wound upon the head before I alighted from my carriage, the pulsations of the brain being very distinct. The top of the head appeared somewhat like an inverted funnel, as if some wedge-shaped body had passed from below upward. Mr. Gage, during the time I was examining this wound, was relating the manner in which he was injured to the bystanders. I did not believe Mr. Gage’s statement at that time, but thought he was deceived. Mr. Gage persisted in saying that the bar went through his head. Mr. G. got up and vomited; the effort of vomiting pressed out about half a teacupful of the brain, which fell upon the floor.[19]

One of the most remarkable things, besides being able to actually live fairly normally after such a violent incident, is that people started to notice a change in his personality.

Harlow, One of his doctors:

The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet 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, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart business man, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage”.

This change in personality has a major impact on the congnitive sciences. Because of a lack of sophisticated tools, scientists could only really learn about the brain by noticing what changed after a part of the brain was damaged in some way.

Luckily, Phineas was able to demonstrate a measure of neuroplasticity in rewiring his brain to a certain degree, and over time was able to able to better cope socially, and think in more long-term ways.

Unfortunately Phineas Gage, only lived another 12 years, and kept his tamping iron with him at all times.


{info & images from here.}