Most visitors to this blog are guided here by a search engine. The most common search term is ‘Phineas Gage’.
Neuroscience has placed a lot of weight on this dead man’s shoulders. He’s on every syllabus connected to the brain, reason and emotions.
Last Wednesday I noticed a lot of visitors to these posts from Brazil. Why would people in Brazil suddenly be interested in Phineas Gage? When I turned to that day’s news, I discovered the reason: Brazil had its own ‘Phineas Gage’.
Eduardo Leite, 24, was working on a building site in Rio on Wednesday when the sharp 6ft piece of metal fell from five storeys above.
It went through his hard hat, passed through the back of his skull and a major part of his brain, and ended up poking out between his eyes.
The surgeon involved gives more details:
“This metal bar entered the skull through the posterior and lateral part of the brain, perforated the bone, transfixed the entire brain, we call it the core, and exited through the anterior part in between the two eyes.” (Man survives horrific ‘brain skewer’ injury, my emphasis)
And guess what? They removed the iron rod and he is almost back to normal.
The immediate explanation of the medical team involved was that ‘the bar entered a “non-eloquent” area of the brain that doesn’t have a specific, major known function.’ Check and you will find that most of the brain is ‘non-eloquent’ and can be removed with little noticeable effect.
I’m deeply skeptical of the celebrity of the brain, but here I want to explore another aspect to the fortunes of Phineas Gage and Eduardo Leite.
1. a. Chance, hap, or luck, regarded as a cause of events and changes in men’s affairs.
2. a. A chance, hap, accident; an event or incident befalling any one, an adventure. Obs.
3. a. The chance or luck (good or bad) which falls to any one as his lot in life or in a particular affair.
There was Eduardo working on the ground floor, doing his job and minding his own business, when something five floors up caused this iron bar to hurtle to the ground.
It came from so far away it couldn’t have been deliberate. It was an accident. Construction sites are dangerous.
It could have fallen a few inches in another direction. But it didn’t. Eduardo could have moved, just a fraction. But he didn’t. It could have glanced off his hard hat, to have been a topic of wonder and humour. But it didn’t.
It happened just the way it did and that’s all there is to it. There is no cause here to blame. No one to be angry at. It was a chance event. He was unlucky (for it to have hit him). He was lucky (to have survived).
This was ‘fortune’ at work.
Forget the brain. There is a larger lesson here. We flatter ourselves that we are in control of our lives and that only the actions of others can thwart our plans. Many emotions rest on this belief.
Events such as this correct this error. An iron bar through the brain is an extreme event, but many other things in our lives are down to ‘fortune’ or happenstance, things we cannot control and have to accept and get on with it. Our parents. Where we were born. A chromosome here or there. A chance encounter … All can change a life’s direction.
The lesson here is humility.