Frederick L. Coolidge, Ph.D. and Thomas Wynn, Ph.D.

How to Think Like a Neandertal

The Biggest Myth about Phineas Gage

What Gage’s tragic 1848 accident has to do with Neandertal extinction

Posted Oct 01, 2013

Were Neandertals, who were successful hunters living in Europe and the Middle East for over 200,000 years, able to plan, organize, strategize, and make decisions as well as modern humans? Some scholars think so, but we think there are good reasons to doubt this. And our reasons begin with a fascinating event that occurred over 150 years ago. On September 13,1848, Phineas Gage, a 26-year-old foreman of a railroad-building crew, dropped an iron-tamping rod onto a dynamite charge, which blew through his eye and came out the top of his forehead. Almost miraculously (without the advantage of antibiotics), he survived over 12½ years. It has passed into near mythology that his personality changed so radically that “he was ‘no longer Gage.’” That particular description of Gage’s personality change was published by his initial attending physician J. M. Harlow in 1868, 20 years after Gage’s tragic accident and about 7 years after Gage’s death, the latter from what appeared to be status epilepticus, an unremitting state of brain seizures. There were virtually no other first-hand published accounts of Gage’s life, other than a briefer article published by Harlow in 1848.

The skull of Phineas Gage

And so, primarily based on Harlow’s 1868 article, descriptions of Gage’s personality changes, such as “childish,” “obstinate,” “capricious,” “vacillating,” and others have become associated with the now legendary phrase, “he was ‘no longer Gage.’” However, and very importantly, that phrase was not used in the context of his personality changes! A subtle clue to unraveling this myth appears in our opening sentence, the “foreman” of a railroad crew. At the age of 26, Phineas Gage was directing a group of other men, presumably making plans to clear land for the railroad rails, organizing his men to carry out those plans, and dealing with all the obstructions and vagaries that such a job would entail.

The following passage is what Harlow actually wrote in 1868:

“Previous to his injury, though untrained in the schools, he possessed a well- balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart business man, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard [italics ours] his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was 'no longer Gage.'”

Indeed, Harlow wrote that Gage’s personality dramatically changed, becoming childish, capricious, and impulsive, where he might have once been mature, level-headed, and decisive, but the very specific context that Harlow wrote “he was ‘no longer Gage…’” actually referred to Gage’s loss of his keen business acumen and his inability to carry out and execute his operational plans.

In 2001, in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, we published our first article together entitled Executive Functions of the Frontal Lobes and the Evolutionary Ascendancy of Homo sapiens [email us if you’d like a free electronic copy]. In that article we noted that Harlow’s description of Gage’s loss of his business acumen might have been the first use of the executive functions metaphor, an ability subsequently ascribed to the confluence of cognitive abilities to plan, organize, and carry out actions while inhibiting irrelevant but competing stimuli, the latter of which might inhibit the success of a task. Subsequently, modern research has implicated the prefrontal cortex as the primary neural substrate for these brain functions. Further, we have already presented and reviewed empirical evidence for the executive functions of the frontal lobes’ strong heritability due to the additive influence of many genes.

So what do executive functions of the frontal lobes have to do with Neandertals? Were Neandertals, who appeared to be surviving well in Europe and the Middle East about 100,000 years ago, able to plan, organize, strategize, and make decisions? Absolutely! Without a doubt! Neandertals had to have had basic executive functions. But here’s what we hypothesize: In the last 100,000 years or so, a genetic mutation or epigenetic event might have occurred in Homo sapiens that enhanced our executive functions beyond that of Neandertals. That small but significant difference gave some additional power to our executive functions: Perhaps it was a better ability to inhibit ourselves (allowing diplomatic speech), perhaps it was greater cognitive flexibility, perhaps it was a greater ability to predict the future… we do not know. But ultimately, we think it was that tiny mutation led to our survival and Neandertals extinction.

Our Homo sapiens’ ancestors did not have to wage war against the stronger, stockier Neandertals. We, apparently, were able to ‘out think’ them, perhaps, by being able to extract more resources from the same environment due to our expanded or enhanced executive functions [which we called Enhanced Working Memory in a 2010 journal article, which is also available free of charge by email].

Would you like to take an online course with the University of Colorado’s Center for Cognitive Archaeology [for credit or non-credit, undergrad or graduate] in cognitive evolution or about Neandertals? Contact the University of Colorado’s Extended Studies Coordinator Brian Glach (bglach@uccs.edu) for details.