Materialism and The story of a man named Phineas Gage

Summer of 1848 in Cavendish, Vermont.

Gage was a blasting foreman working on a railway construction project and his job, at that time, was to clear away rock so that they could lay down tracks.


And to do so, his routine during those days, was that he would bore a hole in the rocks. Inside the hole, he put blasting powder and a fuse in.

Then he would cover that up with dirt and sand and take a tamping iron, which he carried with him.

A big piece of steel, looked like a javelin and use it to tamp down the sand and dirt, so that later they could set the fuse and cause the explosions.



Well one day, something didn't work.


Nobody's exactly sure why, maybe he just forgot to put in the sand and the dirt. But regardless, he put the tamping iron into the hole, the powder exploded. The tamping iron shot away from his hand and went into his face. It entered the left side of Gage's jaw, moving in an upward direction, it passed behind the left eye through the left side of the brain and it went out the top of his skull and landed several feet away of the clutter. Now miraculously Gage wasn't killed on the spot. He lost consciousness for a little bit, but then he staggered to his feet.



And in some regards, Gage was very lucky. So he underwent a series of operations, he had infections, he got sick. At times, his life was at risk. But months later, he was, in certain regards, pretty much recovered. He was able to see, he wasn't deaf, he wasn't paralysed, he didn't lose the ability to speak or understand language, he didn't lose his intellectual capacities in any simple way.



But in another sense Gage was very unlucky

Gage has been transformed by this incident.

Someone who knew Gage describes the transformation like this: Before the accident Gage was, "the most efficient and capable man, a man of temperate habits, considerable energy of character, a sharp shrewd businessman".



After the accident, Gage was no longer Gage. He was fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity manifesting but little deference for his fellows. He ended up losing his job. He traveled through the states taking up different jobs, engaging in different relationships. And ultimately ended up in an exhibit in a travelling circus, holding a tamping iron and telling people about this terrible story about how it went through his head and went through his brain, and changed his life.


So, why am I telling you this story? Well, as I said, I want to begin the course by talking about the brain. And the story of Phineas Gage illustrates something which we have abundant reason to believe, which is that the brain is the source of mental life. And so damage to the brain can have profound effects on who we are and what we are.

An idea here is nicely summarised by the Nobel prize winning biologist Francis Crick, he calls it the Astonishing Hypothesis. As he writes, the Astonishing Hypothesis is that You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

Now this assembly of nerve cells is of course the brain, the brain and parts of the spinal cord, but we're going to talk about the brain here.

An the idea then, as sometimes people like to put it the mind is the brain or that the mind is what the brain does or the mental life emerges from the brain.


The official term for this is materialism that we are material beings. Everybody accepts that our arms and legs and our heart and kidneys are made of the same sort of stuff as rabbits and automobiles and cups. But the idea is that our mental life, what makes us special, our most intimate feelings and thoughts also arise from these material things. And this the idea that makes possible the discipline of neuroscience and much of psychology.


Introduction to psychology by Paul Bloom for Yale.

© 2020 by My Natural Doctor - Naturopathy, Nutrition & Fasting Therapies with Josephine Declerck

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