General Psychology

Phineas Gage, The Social Brain, and Neurons


Phineas Gage is the peculiar story of a railroad foreman who improbably survived the impalement of a railroad spike entirely through the skull (Teles, 2020).  Oddly, immediately following the injury, he began writing in his workbook still recognized his doctor (O’Driscoll & Leach, 1998).  After a month’s struggle with infection and other complications from his injury, Gage miraculously recovered, with his doctor reporting significant changes to his personality, slight impairment to his intelligence, and epilepsy (1998). It was also suggested that he had suffered localized damage to the left frontal cortex (Van Horn et al., 2012). It was this damage that could suggest the changes to his decision making and social behavior, as the left frontal cortex is an imperative part of these faculties (Clark et al., 2003). In other words, damage to this area of the brain is known for resulting in profound changes to behavior.

 Neurons can be defined as electrically excitable cells responsible for transmitting signals throughout the body (Ludwig et al., 2021). They work by utilizing electrical and chemical signals to transmit information from their synapse to other synapses.  They are also connected to effector organs at neuroeffector junctions.  One of the primary components of a neuron, the axon, can be conceived as the transmitter, responsible for communicating efferent signals.  Another primary constituent of a neuron, the dendrite, can be considered the receiver, which collects these afferent signals from its synaptic surrounding (2021). One of the best ways to perceive the functioning of neurons could be to consider them a sort of biological radio communication system. It is reasonable to suggest that neurons will only work properly when there are more than one in proper tact and position.  This is because, much like a radio communication, there must be both a transmitting radio and a receiving radio for a transmission to be considered successful.             

In terms of how this philosophy behind neuronal function relates to the curious case of Phineas Gage, it could be said that portions of the patient’s neuronal pathways were damaged in the affected areas of the brain related to his injury.  Specifically, neuronal pathways were likely damaged in the left frontal cortex, an area of the brain significantly responsible for behavior and decision-making. This type of injury easily, reasonably explains the profound changes to personality incurred by the patient. It is not difficult to postulate that neurons which would normally have properly transmitted information responsible for the patient’s original personality and behavior were damaged to the point they no longer properly transmitted or received information the same way. In the case of Phineas Gage, this resulted in a more docile, slower personality.


Clark, L., Manes, F., Antoun, N., Sahakian, B., and Robbins, T., (2003). The contributions of lesion laterality and lesion volume to decision-making impairment following frontal lobe damage. Neuropsychologia, 41(11), 1474-1483. DOI:

Ludwig, P., Reddy, V., and Varacallo, M., (2021). Neuroanatomy, Neurons. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from:

O’Driscoll, K., & Leach, J. P. (1998). “No longer Gage”: an iron bar through the head. Early observations of personality change after injury to the prefrontal cortex. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 317(7174), 1673–1674. DOI:

Teles R. V. (2020). Phineas Gage’s great legacy. Dementia & neuropsychologia, 14(4), 419–421.

Van Horn, J., Irimia, A., Torgerson, C., Chambers, M., Kikinis, R., & Toga, A., (2012). Mapping connectivity damage in the case of Phineas Gage. PloS one, 7(5), e37454. DOI:

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