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Make Up Your Mind

How Phineas Lost It  
Photo of  Phineas Gage's Skull
  The skull of Phineas Gage, who died in 1848 is still teaching scientists valuable lessons about the human brain.

In "Make Up Your Mind," FRONTIERS explores the region of the brain that many scientists believe makes us most human - our frontal lobes, or prefrontal cortex. It's here that we are able plan ahead, organize our thoughts and make decisions - the brain's "chairman of the board" according to neurologist Jordan Grafman. It's also the part that plays a significant role in determining personality, a fact that became abundantly clear after a remarkable event in 1848.

Photo of  Skull showing Phrenology Delineations
Raitiu uses modern technology to pinpoint the injury to Gage's brain.  
Phineas Gage was working as a foreman in Vermont when a terrible accident shot a steel rod clean through the front portion of his skull. Not only did Gage survive the blow, he reportedly got to his feet and walked away. But with a significant part of his frontal lobe destroyed, Gage underwent a dramatic personality shift. Irritable and often confused, he was unable to perform the duties that made him a successful foreman. At the time, little was understood about the direct connection between personality and the brain. The late 18th Century anatomist Francis Gall attempted to map personality traits like benevolence and selfishness in the brain by measuring bumps on the skull. This crude "science" known as phrenology was entirely false in its claims, but Gall was correct in recognizing that the brain has specialized regions. And among these regions, none sets us apart as individuals and as a species more than our frontal lobes.

For more on this topic, see the web feature:
A Heady Hypothesis

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