By all accounts, Phineas Gage was a friendly, professional and level-headed person before his accident. But on the afternoon of 13 September 1848, everything changed. At the age of 25, Phineas was a construction foreman heading up a small team of railway workers, primarily involved in blasting and clearing ground for tracks to be laid. This job was achieved by drilling a thin vertical hole into the rock that was to be blasted and sprinkling a sufficient amount of gunpowder into the hole. A fuse was then added and the top of the hole was tightly packed with sand or clay – a practice called tamping – to direct the blast into the surrounding rock and to contain the explosion safely below ground.
As foreman, Phineas was tasked with first loading and gently packing the gunpower into the hole with an iron tamping rod. His assistant would then pour sand or clay on top of the powder and Phineas would more vigorously tamp the sand into the hole to ensure a tight fit. Much like a writer may perhaps have a favourite pen, Phineas used a personalised tamping rod with a tapered tip for ease of holding, a piece he had commissioned from a local blacksmith. On that Wednesday, Phineas used his personalised rod to perform a task that he had completed thousands of times before, almost unconsciously.
Late that afternoon, after a long day of hard work, something went wrong. Witnesses claimed that Phineas was distracted by a commotion as some members of the team were noisily packing blasted debris into the back of a truck for removal. Phineas turned his head to see what the fuss was about and upon returning to his tamping, he failed to notice that his assistant had not yet poured sand into the blast hole. Striking down into the gunpowder-filled cavity with more force than normal, Phineas’ personalised rod set off a spark against the drilled rock. Without the buffer of the sand or clay, the gunpower was ignited and the subsequent explosion propelled the javelin-like tamping rod from the narrow hole, like a bullet from a gun.
The iron rod – which was over a metre long and weighed close to six kilograms – shot straight through Phineas’ skull. According to several accounts, although unlikely verifiable, the rod landed tip first over 20 metres away, covered in blood and an oily layer, presumably from the fat-rich cells of the brain. The force had thrown Phineas Gage onto his back and yet, even with the rod passing through the front left part of his brain, he miraculously survived. Even more remarkable was the fact that he never lost consciousness, sitting up and talking as he was taken into town by his co-workers, and even greeting the arriving physician, as recorded in The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, saying, “Doctor, I have some business for you.”
The case of Phineas Gage has lived on in university text books for decades, as a favourite example amongst lecturers across a broad range of disciplines. What was special about this case was Phineas’ dramatic change of personality after the accident. Where before he was described as a gentle and considerate soul, after the accident his friends no longer knew Gage as Gage, as he was fitful, irreverent and prone to the crudest profanities. And although making a miraculous recovery in all cognitive abilities of memory, language, motor skills and reasoning, Gage had changed on a personal and social level, as was attested to by close friends and family. So drastic was this negative change to his personality that the railroad company that hired him turned him away after the accident, despite Gage displaying full functionality in all physical and mental endeavours related to his work.
As the first medically recorded incident of the type, the case of Phineas Gage marked a turning point in the study of the human brain and its relation to who we are as human beings. Whilst retaining basic motor and cognitive functions, the damage to Gage’s frontal lobe caused a radical change in his higher cognitive functions that relate to social interaction and inter-personal behaviours. Since this instance, there have been hundreds of cases where an illness, accident or trauma to the brain has significantly altered the thoughts and behaviours of individuals in strange and unexplainable ways, with particular kinds of epilepsy making people more religious, for example, certain cases of Parkinson’s making people lose their faith, and the medication for Parkinson’s subsequently turning patients into compulsive gamblers.
Similarly, when we ingest drugs or alcohol, we may act in ways that are said to be “out of character”, or we even claim that “we were not ourselves” when perpetrating certain unfavourable actions. But what exactly is it then to be you? If you can become “not you” through a forced change in your physical and chemical makeup, either permanently or temporarily, then surely the conception of our own being is artificially created, beyond the realm of physical observances – as some abstract, unchangeable and incorruptible version of the “I”.
This theoretical conception of our own being has a long and complicated history in Western thinking, with the 17th Century French philosopher René Descartes proposing a type of metaphysical dualism that separates the world into physical and non-physical states. For Descartes, the abstract workings of the mind – such as thoughts and feelings relating to love and our ideas of morality, for example – belonged to the non-physical realm, as core characteristics that make us who we are. Thus, although our physical bodies may change, there still remains an incorruptible essence that constitutes what it means to be “me” or “you”, as a unique being that cannot be replicated.
How unduplicatable this consciousness is, however, is up for debate. Certain fields of modern neuroscience research, for example, aim to digitally map and replicate every neural connection and interaction of a living organism, to begin to better understand, among other things, how our consciousness operates. One such project – which may serve as a launchpad for a wider investigation into consciousness – is OpenWorm. The goal of the OpenWorm project was to build the first ever comprehensive computational model of a living organism, digitally replicating each cell and every neuron, to become the world’s most detailed virtual lifeform. The particular organism in question is Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), a microscopic nematode, or roundworm, comprised of less than a thousand cells. Something of a hermaphroditic superstar in the scientific community – with research on C. elegans going back over 40 years – it is biologically perhaps the best understood creature in existence. To date, it is the only organism with every one of its 959 cells and 302 neurons completely mapped out in what is known as a connectome – a wiring diagram of sorts, detailing the connections and interactions of the neural system.
Despite its simple biology, C. elegans is a relatively complex creature compared to its microscopic worm counterparts. Unlike many its size, this roundworm is constantly reacting to stimuli, solving problems such as finding food, locating a mate and even avoiding deadly predators like the Pristionchus pacificus, a fellow nematode that preys on the slightly smaller 1mm long C. elegans. It is this combination of physical simplicity and sufficiently complex behaviour that make it the perfect subject for a project such as OpenWorm, as a first step in understanding the ephemeral relationships and interactions between individual neurons and how these biochemical reactions ultimately affect behaviour.
Once every neural interaction was captured in code, as a virtual brain of sorts, the next natural step for the OpenWorm project was to give the digitally replicated C. elegans a body. And once the software containing the encoded neural interactions was linked to some motors and sensors attached to a Lego body with wheels, without prompting, the robot came to life – it began to move on its own, in ways that the scientists described as characteristic of a nematode. They had created a virtual lifeform and the digitally replicated worm began to interact with its environment as if it were a real, organic organism.
What the scientists at OpenWorm aimed to prove – although only on a miniscule level – is that it is possible to model and replicate organic lifeforms in a digital format. And if it is true that the chemical pathways between neurons can be mapped, understood and exactly replicated, then there is conceptually nothing stopping the eventual recreation of a functioning human brain – either digitally or physically – given the fullness of time and the advancement of technology.