A couple of months ago, I spoke about how emotions are at the forefront of all the decisions we make. As we go through our daily activities what allows us to quickly make conjectures, conclusions and decisions are the emotional tags that every stored memory has. This emotional tag is what is called up very quickly when any situation arises. The tag lets us quickly find similar previous situations and lets us know how we felt then. We can use that information to quickly decide what to do in this present situation. Scientific evidence demonstrates that the pattern recognition we use to assess what is going on is dependent on the emotional tags attached to them.
This process precludes having to analyze similar situations over and over again each time they show up. This expedient method allows us to continue to function in a relatively smooth fashion. We are distressed only when the present situation is not emotionally tagged in our memory. Since we do not have similar experiences tagged in memory, we now must perform a tedious analysis.
This stuff is scientifically proven using modern medical imaging techniques. In this column, I want to discuss the beginning of the science – the ground zero of the study of the brain.
In September of 1848, 25-year-old Phineas Gage had an interesting job. He directed a work gang that was charged with preparing the roadbed for a new railroad line in Cavendish, Vermont. He used explosive charges to blow up rocks that were in the path of the intended railway. After drilling a hole in the rock, he would place blasting powder and a fuse in the hole. He then packed in sand using a 13-pound metal bar called a tamping iron. The tamping iron was 1.25 inches in diameter, three feet, seven inches long and weighed 13.25 pounds. It was tapered on one end.
On September 13, around 4:30 p.m., he was distracted by the men who were working behind him. He looked over his right shoulder, which placed his head in line with the blast hole. As he began to speak, the tamping rod caused sparks that set off the blasting powder. The exploding charge drove the tapered end of the tamping iron through Mr. Gage’s cheek, under his left eye, and exited through the top of his head. It landed point-first, 80 feet away.
Mr. Gage was coherent within a few minutes and sat upright on the oxcart ride to his hotel in town. About 30 minutes after the accident, Dr. Edward Williams found him sitting in a chair outside the hotel. Mr. Gage said to him, “Doctor, here is business enough for you.”
Mr. Gage survived the accident that destroyed much of his left frontal lobe. Reports of the damage to his mental wellbeing, however, vary and much discussion has taken place regarding the extent of the injury. If you have curiosity and a strong stomach, see the Wikipedia article.
It was also reported that it damaged the connection between the frontal cortex and the limbic system, which is involved in the regulation of emotions.
Some reports state that the accident had a profound effect on his personality. He lost his social inhibitions and became profane and irreverent. His injuries were some of the first demonstrated evidence that the frontal cortex is involved with personality and behavior. These symptoms apparently lasted for only a couple of years. He later became a stagecoach operator in Chile. This profession required him to perform tasks that could not be performed by the damaged brain unless it found ways to restructure.
According to neuroscientist Dr. Antonio Damasio, another effect of the injury was that his ability to make sound decisions was also impaired. He was capable of analysis, however the requisite emotional processing was compromised. He used Mr. Gage’s situation, in conjunction with other patients he studied, to conclude “emotion and its underlying neural machinery participate in decision making.”
Although Dr. Damasio has been criticized for over stating the extent of the behavioral changes to Mr. Gage and omitting facts of the case, his work with the human brain, behavior, emotion and decision-making is what led me to all of the above. I use his statement that “We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think” in my presentations regarding decision-making.
So, there you have it. A hole in the head may have been instrumental in discovering how the human brain works and how we make decisions. Next time you hear someone use the words hole in the head, you will have an interesting tale to tell.
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