Like the Story of the Headless Horseman, the Story of the Man With a Hole in His Skull Never Ceases to Intrigue Us. And It Illuminates a Lot about How We Think.

If you need a crash course in how the brain functions, if you need it to take no more than 30 to 45 minutes and if you want it to be entertaining, even captivating, I have the answer.

It’s a book written for children, ages 9 to 12. It’s called Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science. For 75 riveting pages, it uses a tale that continues to fascinated brain researchers as a narrative skeleton on which to hang the story of 150 years of inquiry into how the brain works. Or doesn’t work.

Phineas Gage’s brain seemed to work just fine up until the moment that forever changed the 26-year-old railroad track construction gang foreman’s life—and perhaps the course of brain research itself. A powder charge planted in granite detonated prematurely. The blast drove a 13-1/2-pound, three-foot-seven-inch tamping rod up through the left side of his mouth, under his left cheekbone, behind his left eye, through the front of his brain and out the middle of his forehead just above the hairline.

If you haven’t heard the story, you probably assume that Gage died on the spot. But he didn’t. He lived for another eleven years, six months and nineteen days. Kept walking around, kept working, kept talking. In other words, continued as a half-way passable human being in many ways until his brain finally succumbed to seizures probably brought on by his injury.

What happened in between, and afterwards, gets very able telling by science writer John Fleischman, even if he is writing with adolescents in mind. As you read about what happens to Phineas Gage, and then to Phineas Gage’s skull and then to Phineas Gage’s probable injury patterns when placed in the electrons of a contemporary computer program called Brainvox at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clincs in Iowa City, you suddenly realize you’ve been exposed almost effortlessly to a seminar on how our knowledge of brain functioning developed in the past century and a half.

Gage’s skull now resides (unless it’s been moved again recently) in the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. That lethal tamping iron is there, too.

The Brainvox program used by renowed brain researchers Antonio and Hanna Damasio at the University of Iowa suggests that the tamping iron missed Broca’s area in Gage’s left temple and two key sections of the cortex responsible for helping a person keep his balance, focus his attention and remember old and new events. In that respect, he was very fortunate.

But as the iron passed through the middle of his frontal lobes where the two hemispheres meet, it devastated the area—more on the left side that the right, more on the top of the frontal cortex than the back, more on the underside than the top—that enables us to be sociable. That was why, says Fleischman, his closest companion thereafter was that iron rod, which he carried with him to his dying day.

As of this writing, Amazon.com has several dozen previously owned copies of Phineas Gage for sale beginning at $3.24 plus shipping. Go here: Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science

I think it’s a book you’ll not want the 9-to-12-year-old in you to miss.

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