Today, an old accident raises new questions about
morality. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
In 1848, Phineas Gage, a
25-year-old railway foreman, tamped down a dynamite
charge. He was trying to level a rail bed in the
rocky soil of Vermont. He used a 3½-foot
tamping rod, 1.2 inches in diameter. The unstable
powder went off.
And so, on that September day a century and a half
ago, Gage's tamping rod shot back into his face
like a long artillery shell. It entered under his
left cheek, drove upward taking out his left eye,
passed through the frontal lobes of his brain, out
the top of his skull, and on up into the autumn
The wreckage of Phineas Gage fell to the ground.
But his wreckage shook off the shock. He talked to
his men as they helped him walk away. The wound
healed, and he lived another 13 years.
Yet you might wonder if it was really Gage who
survived that terrible accident. He'd been bright,
efficient, and responsible. After the explosion,
his intelligence and memory were intact. He'd lost
an eye but otherwise seemed to've recovered
But he'd changed. He'd lost his social constraints.
He became an unreliable liar. His language grew
coarse. He never held a responsible position again.
A few years after Gage's death, his doctor, John
Harlow, got permission to dig up the remains. The
tamping rod had been buried with him. Harlow
preserved it along with the skull it had so
savaged. He studied the wound. Then he suggested
that a part of the brain serves to plan and execute
No one had autopsied Gage, and Harlow had only his
skull. He couldn't pinpoint which parts of the
brain had been torn away. Victorians believed in
brain centers for motion and language. But one for
ethics and judgment? They called Harlow a crank.
Now Drs. Hanna and Antonio Damasio have put a 3-D
replica of Gage's skull in the computer along with
a 3-D replica of a normal brain that would've fit
Gage's skull. They replay the accident in virtual
reality. They can see just what part of Gage's
brain was excised; and they know what Gage became
when it was gone.
They combine that with other people's frontal brain
injuries. In the end they support Harlow's
suggestion. Damage to the left and right prefrontal
cortices, they say, results in defective rational
decision making and poor processing of emotions.
So newspapers claim that science has found a "moral
center" in our minds. I doubt it. Gage's tamping
rod tore away the skill of social control. Both the
moral and the immoral among us use that skill! The
Damasios aren't talking about morality. What they
really show us is that an old accident has much to
tell us when we have the wits to read it with
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds