Once you understand the extent of Phineas Gage’s accident, you can begin to see its implications on how we can study the human brain and mind. There are three classical ways to view the situation when using Phineas Gage to address the mind/brain question (whether or not our identity is made up of two components, the mind and brain; or, if the mind is just a construct, or byproduct, of our brain and doesn’t actually exist). The first is dualism, which is the belief that both the mind and brain exist (the mind in the metaphysical realm and the brain in the physical) and the two communicate with each other. The second is a straight mechanical way of looking at the situation. Only the brain exists and each part of the brain conducts, or handles, a single specific function. This is a one to one ratio. Finally the third way of looking at this is a dialect materialistic view point. Dialectical thinkers believe that only the brain exists, but it is not in a one to one ratio, and in fact the brain adapts and changes functions as it grows. Each part is important in how it relates to the whole, or other parts of the brain. For this article we will discuss how this evidence relates to dualism.
Let’s refresh our knowledge on the incident. Phineas Gage was a generally respected foreman working on the railroad lines. By many of his friends and acquaintances he was considered a calm headed, rational man. But then the accident happened. A tapping iron was shot through the frontal lobe of his brain and left a section damaged and unusable. After this, many commented upon his changed emotional state. They referred to him as quick to anger, and said he acted upon impulse. For all intents and purposes his personality made him seem like an entirely different man.
This seems like strong evidence to support the idea of the brain being like a machine, and each part has its very own function. However, it can also be used as evidence for the argument of dualism. Some scholars argue the frontal lobe is how the brain and the mind communicate (as a developed frontal lobe is one of the main differences which separate human brains from other species’ brains). Therefore, if part of this frontal lobe was damaged then the brain couldn’t communicate as effectively with the mind. This could cause misinterpretations and therefore alter Phineas’s responses to his environment.
But others believe that the idea of the frontal lobe being a device which allows the brain and mind to communicate as somewhat simplistic. Rather if we infer that the mind has access to the whole of the brain, there is another way we can interpret the change in Phineas’s behavior. Say we treat the brain as a complex computer, or even a network of computers; and, the mind is the user sitting at the desk. Now, when the frontal lobe of Phineas was damaged in the accident, we assume a part of the computer system was damaged as well. But the computers can still interact with one another; it’s just that one of the machines is performing with less quality or speed. This obscures the collective data which is finally viewed by the “mind” sitting at his desk. Therefore, he would be interpreting the data incorrectly; and hence, react differently than he normally would have.
Or let’s say Phineas does observe the correct data, but when he tries to react and put in the new operation for the computer (brain), the damaged component affects how the information reaches the environment. This instance would conclude that it is the environment which receives the wrong information, rather than the user.
Perhaps this is a little confusing however. Maybe a simpler version would work better. If a graphics card is damaged within your computer, you can still see an image on your screen. However, the color, shading, shapes, or pixels could all have something wrong with them. This distorts the intended image into something new. Since the brain is much more complex than your typical computer however, this distortion could also be a much more drastic alteration. In turn, the distortion could be great enough to change an individual’s response from gentle to hostile.