See exactly where Phineas Gage lost his mind



Phineas Gage enjoys an unfortunate fame in neuroscience circles: After a 5-foot iron tamping rod blew through his head one September afternoon in 1848, the once amiable and capable railroad foreman became a uncouth ne-er-do-well — and Exhibit A in how particular brain areas tended to specialize in particular tasks. (In his case, the prefrontal cortical areas that went skyward with the tamping rod proved, in retrospect, to be vital to his powers of foresight and self-control.)

I’ve always taken an extra level of interest in Gage because his horrific accident happened in my adopted home state of Vermont, in Cavendish, not terribly far from where I type this. I’ve long wanted to visit the scene of the accident. If you’d like to as well, you have the chance this weekend if you can get up to Vermont. To mark the 150th anniversary of Gage’s death (which came 12 years after his accident), the Cavendish Historical Society is taking what sounds like a phenomenal two-hour walking tour that includes the accident site, the home and office of the surgeon who treated him, the boarding house where he was taken, presumably to die, and the carpenter’s shop in which was built the coffin he turned out not to need.

Here’s the tour description:

May 23 (Sunday): To mark the 150th anniversary of Phineas Gage’s death, CHS is holding a walking tour of sites relating to his accident. Meet at the Museum, Main Street Cavendish, at 2 pm. The tour will take about two hours and will visit the accident site where Gage had the tamping rod go through his head; and the locations of the home and surgery of Dr. Harlow; the boarding house where Gage was taken and the carpentar’s shop, which built the coffin that he ended up not needing. Please read more about Gage in the previous post to this blog. If you would like copies of the walking tour guide, you can pick them up at the Cavendish Town Office or the Cavendish Library. You can obtain an PDF copy by e-mailing [email protected] and writing “directions for Phinease Gage tour” in the subject heading. 

For details, check out the Cavendish History Society calendar. If you get the map (see above), you could walk it on your own someday, though you’d miss what is likely a richly informed account from the guides. (That, unfortunately, is what I’ll have to do, because I’ve got a prior commitment that day. I have to play baseball. Tough life.)

While you’re in Cavendish (which is in southeast Vermont, about 4 hours from NYC or 2.5 from Boston), you can also try to find the house in which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn lived, though, in good New England style, the locals might not tell you. Or they might simply tell you, “You can’t get theah from heah.”




Gleanings from empathetic ravens, lying brains, dying converence, fading vocabularies, and new books


Ravens via PDPhoto

Ravens show that consoling one another is also for the birds, Yet another finding that other species have qualities previously thought uniquely human. Our greatest distinction is that we’re highly social. Yet in that we’ve got a lot of company.  

Human brains excel at detecting cheaters. FMRI’s, not so much, says Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks– though in yet another court case, the fMRI lie detection industry pushes another story.

Bell also has a nice write-up of of scintillating RadioLab program on how early dementia shows up in use of language. A stellar program, and short. You’d be demented not to listen to it.

At n+1, Kent Russell offers Eight Playoff Truisms. He’s talking hockey, but most of it would go for basketball. I care zero for hockey but found this a fun read.

Backreaction: The Future of the Conference wonders whether we’ll quit all this traveling and just conference in cyberspace. I don’t see it. No substitute for meatspace, which we manage and mine far more skillfully than anyone does the web. Don’t get me wrong, I love the web. But it can’t replace meatspace any more than meatscape can it.

You can now order Here Is a Human Being: At the Dawn of Personal Genomics, by Misha Angrist, a writer who talked his way into being one of the first ten people to have his entire genome sequenced. Haven’t read it myself yet, but after meeting Misha and hearing him talk — and spar with Jim Watson (Angrist is not just a cheerleader for all things genomic) — I believe this will be a good read.


Gulf drilling got free pass. Now they tell us.


A Times story this morning reports that, according to both documents and scientists in the US Minerals Management Service (MMS), the MMS routinely silenced safety and environmental warnings from staff in order to grant permits for even huge, high-risk drilling permits, including the BP rig that blew.

It’s a good (and nauseating) story, and I’m tempted to say it’s timely. Yet this story would have been a lot more timely before the rig blew, no? As I read it, I wondered why I had not read it weeks ago, when the Obama administration started proposing an expansion of drilling off US coasts. That proposal implicitly assumes thatregulators and drillers were doing reasonably good jobs at ensuring drilling was safe and well-regulated. Today’s report shows otherwise — and that the story has been waiting to be found for months.

I’m not necessarily blaming the Times; no one else did this story earlier either. And it took too parties to make this story happen — a paper, and some sources. It needed a newspaper that wanted to do it and scientists in the know who could spill the beans. I’d love to know which of those conditions were missing before the rig blew. Had this story run before the rig blew, it probably would not have shut the BP rig down.  But it would have changed the conversation about expansion of drilling and made the political blowback even bigger.

So who didn’t show up for this dance when the music first started playing weeks ago? Was the press trying to do the story but failing to reach staff scientists and convince them to supply the neededinformation and documents? Were there scientists trying to draw attention to the story and failing to get the press’s attention? Or had neither press nor scientists heard the music?

Gleanings: Illusions, genomics, Freud, lighting the brain, and eating alone

Traveling. But here’s what I’m reading during train, plane, and bus rides — and over meals:


Gravity-defying ramps take illusion prize. This contest always produces fascinating stuff. This time, the ball rolls up. Video here.


Vaughan Bell ponders cortisol, dopamine, neuroplasticity, and other things that set off his bullshit detector. Riff launched from a post from Neuroskeptic on cortisol and childcare scare stories, equally read-worthy.

Dan Vorhaus does a wonderful round-up of reactions and implications stemming from the news that genetic testing is coming to Walgreens. Best blog-post title cited there: “Chapter 38 of the Sky is Falling,” a fine post by genomeboy Misha Angrist.

From Mark Bittman’s blog, Suzanne Lenzer On Eating Alone. Particularly appropriate while traveling. And while I wish I were sharing these meals with my better half, I’m with Lenzer and Stephen B. Johnson in taking a real pleasure in eating good food while reading a good book:

The truth is eating alone is a treat. Now, when I’m in my chair or on my stool, menu in hand, I get to think about what I’m going to enjoy eating and drinking all by myself, ponder what I’m going to think about or read that I haven’t had time for.

Last night it was gnochhi and The Selfish Gene. (On which more another time.)

In Illuminating the brain, Lizzie Buchen reports on the growing use of light to turn different brain areas on and off. This carries significant potential as a cleaner, safer, easier, even more flexible replacement for the sort of deep brain stimulation (DBS) modulators used to treat Parkinson’s and in Mayberg et alia’s experimental depression treatment discussed in yesterday’s post.

Paul Broks on 150 years of Sigmund Freud Some useful reminders.

And via Vaughan Bell’s most recent weekly round-up,

Although autism is usually thought of as a disability, a New Scientist article discusses the fact that the condition can be associated with various cognitive advantages.


“Push” science journalism, or how diversity matters more than size

I’ve been deemed a pusher, and that’s a good thing.

The accuser is Colin Schultz, a busy, curious, and inquisitive young journalist who awarded a story of mine his first annual prize for “push” science journalism. First of all let me say I’m pleased, mainly because the story, ” A Depression Switch?”, about neurologist Helen Mayberg’s experiment using deep brain stimulation to treat depression, is one of the most fascinating, enthralling, and rewarding I’ve ever worked on.

But what is this push journalism business? Push science journalism, says Colin, is science writing that elbows its way into the minds of readers who don’t ordinarily read science. Schultz launched this award contest — one judged solely by him, using criteria he readily admits are squishy — as part of a broader program of critical head-scratching about science journalism, which also included a series of interviews with me and some other writers, including Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, Nature’s Nicola Jones, Discover Channel co-host Jay Ingram, and Ferris Jabr, Colin’s fellow sci-journo on the rise.

Now he wanted to figure out what sorts of stories created push.*  .

I made an evaluation matrix, to help me try to remain objective when reading and judging the stories. I was hoping to grade the stories based on things I had determined would help reach a broad non-science audience. I scored them on eight different things, like: acknowledges the process of science, limits the number of new science concepts per story, uses metaphors, simple language, and references to everyday objects.

The stories were pulled from the 2009 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards. And of those, for my own sanity, I stuck to print stories. Also, during interviews with some prominent science journalists, like Carl Zimmer, David Dobbs, and Nicola Jones, I asked them for examples of what they felt was their own best work. (Sorry Ed, I forgot that question.)

So why did my story A Depression Switch? outscore, soundly in some cases, some great stories by Yong, Zimmer, Jones, and Gary Wolf? Not even Colin argues that the eventual winner is overall better than the competition. (Those other stories are good. They’ve got moonwalkers and sexed-up fireflies and rare diseases and barcoded butterflies written up by ace writers working at peak form. And what’s arguably the most demanding of them, Zimmer’s “Now: The Rest of the Genome,” perrforms a truly impressive feat: a history of genetics in about 2500 words. A downtown, upper-deck shot, that, but it scored only a 3, while my DBS story racked an 8.

What’s up with that? I don’t think anyone would say the DBS story is 266% as good as Zimmer’s genome story. And that’s not the point; the point isn’t quality, but push, which involves quality and some other things. Ultimately the point — or the points — were that the matrix Colin designed to measure push suggested “Switch” would reach more unscience-y reader than the other stories did.

I can’t get at Colin’s scoring spreadsheet — the link’s broken — so can’t trace its doings. But as Colin suggested at one point, some of it has to do with story length. And on that I’ve a couple thoughts.


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Who you gonna believe, me — or my lyin’ fMRI?


Would you believe this brain?

Every few months, sometimes more often, someone tries to ramrod fMRI lie detection into the courtrooms. Each time, it gets a little closer. Wired Science carries the latest alarming story:

A Brooklyn attorney hopes to break new ground this week when he offers a brain scan as evidence that a key witness in a civil trial is telling the truth, has learned.

If the fMRI scan is admitted, it would be a legal first in the United States and could have major consequences for the future of neuroscience in court.

The lawyer, David Levin, wants to use that evidence to break a he-said/she-said stalemate in an employer-retaliation case. He’s representing Cynette Wilson, a woman who claims that after she complained to temp agency CoreStaff Services about sexual harassment at a job site, she no longer received good assignments. Another worker at CoreStaff claims he heard her supervisor say that she should not be placed on jobs because of her complaint. The supervisor denies that he said anything of the sort.

So, Levin had the coworker undergo an fMRI brain scan by the company Cephos, which claims to provide “independent, scientific validation that someone is telling the truth.”

Laboratory studies using fMRI, which measures blood-oxygen levels in the brain, have suggested that when someone lies, the brain sends more blood to the ventrolateral area of the prefrontal cortex. In a very small number of studies, researchers have identified lying in study subjects (.pdf) with accuracy ranging from 76 percent to over 90 percent. But some scientists and lawyers like New York University neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps doubts those results can be applied outside the lab.

“The data in their studies don’t appear to be reliable enough to use in a court of law,” Phelps said. “There is just no reason to think that this is going to be a good measure of whether someone is telling the truth.


Phelps, who’s one of the savvier, more careful imaging scientists around — though hardly an fMRI basher — almost certainly has it right here. One problem, as Phelps notes, is that we simply lack enough data to call this reliable lie detection.

Brooklyn Law School professor Ed Cheng, meanwhile, says that’s not quite the point:

Humans, [Cheng points out[,, are terrible lie detectors and yet our legal system is based on allowing them to make those determinations. If slightly better than chance is the baseline, any improvement on that could be a reason to allow the evidence into court.

“The validation studies may have some problems,” he said. “But if we can help the jury make this decision even a little bit better, it’s hard to defend keeping this stuff out.”

A nice thought, but it misses something critical: As I noted in an earlier article on the overreach of forensic science, juries tend to be overly credulous about any evidence offered as forensic or scientific evidence. And other studies show that imaging studies generate an extra layer of overcredulousness. (On those, see Dave Munger and Jonah Lehrer.) So when an ‘expert’ shows a jury a bunch of brain images and says he’s certain the images say a person is lying (or not), the jury will led this evidence far more weight than it deserves.

Finally, bringing fMRI into the courtroom as a lie detector implies, as per the rules of scientific evidence, that the notion of using fMRI as a lie detector enjoys “general acceptance” among the neuroimaging discipline. Anyone telling you that the case is … well, let’s just say they‘re mistaken.


Neuron Culture Top Five, April 2010


Newscom/Zuma, via TPM

Brains, genes, and taxes won the month.

How does Williams syndrome prevent racism? It’s subtle

Ed Yong, Mo Costandi, Scientific American, and others have covered nicely a new paper finding that people with WIlliams syndrome (a condition I’ve been interested in since writing a long feature about it for the Times Magazine a few years back) show little or no racial bias. But I wanted to add one thought about the finding.

Most of the write-ups have emphasized, rightly, that people with Williams tend to show little or no social fear — a lack that could explain a lack of racial bias. If you don’t fear people, you don’t feel out-groups. Yet as I noted in my article, people with Williams also show a distinct lack of social savvy, and I think this could contribute too:

Your genetic info — not free, easy, or clear

After I wrote in my Atlantic article about getting my serotonin transporter gene assayed (which revealed that I carry that gene’s apparently more plastic short-short form), I started getting a lot of email — several a week — from readers asking how to have their SERT gene tested. This led to an interesting hunt.

Accidental brain evolution suffers a reversal

A couple weeks ago, the Guardian ran an article in which Oxford neurobiologist Colin Blakemore described “how the human got bigger by accident and not through evolution.” Though I didn’t get to it at the time, I thought that an odd headline, since evolution actually occurs when genetic accidents — those mutation things — grant an advantage. Now John Hawks has written a post addressing what he says is a pretty big muckup by Blakemore:

Genomes, cool conferences, and what the hell to tell people about behavioral genes

I had the pleasure of attending the Genomes, Environment, and Traits conference on Tuesday. Was wonderful and strange, with many inspiring, exciting, and/or entertaining moments — and a few things a bit worrisome.   

State taxes inversely related to certain undesirable outcomes

The Tax Foundation recrently ranked the states according to their tax load, with low taxes generating high rankings. My home state of Vermont did not fare well.
Enter my friend David Goodman (

Genomes, cool conferences, and what the hell to tell people about behavioral genes

I had the pleasure of attending the Genomes, Environment, and Traits conference on Tuesday. Was wonderful and strange, with many inspiring, exciting, and/or entertaining moments — and a few things a bit worrisome.   

The twitter feed from the event tracks the talks and agenda pretty thoroughly; it’s far better than my own notes. I especially enjoyed the morning’s main event, in which a tag team of Robert Krulwich and Carl Zimmer called to stage for interviews different combinations of 13 the 10 “pioneers” who had been among the first to have their entire genomes run. As a journalist, I had wondered how Zimmer and Krulwich would handle this. The program said they would interview all 13 ten. When I pictured all of these people lined up on stage while the two journalists tried to interview them, I pictured chaos and trouble. These pioneers featured some larger-than-life figures and a couple cowboys, including James Watson and Skip Gates: a diversity and range of energy, personality, and ideas that might prove hard to handle.

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Gleanings from round the net, Apr 1 2010


fromWould dew believe it: The stunning pictures of sleeping insects covered in water droplets,” at the Daily Mail

Given the day, we find both foolishness and meat.

Fun stuff first:

Science, Nature Team Up on New Journal – ScienceNOW

Does the WTF1 gene trigger the inferior supra-credulus? @edyong209 falls for the whole thing:

Getting real:

Is the Mirror Neuron theory unfalsifiable?: Greg Hickok thinks so.

Pfizer paid $35m to MDs and Researchers. Latter claim $ doesn’t influence practice.. Somebody’s mistaken.

Motherly love may alter genes for the better | Science | The Guardian

Simon Singh wins his libel appeal; huge but expensive victory for open discussion

“This is a very unique opportunity, once in a lifetime.” Archaeologists excavate Shakespeare’s home via @PD_Smith:

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Neuron Culture’s big hits for March


What grabbed people at Neuron Culture this month?

Hands-down winner: Does depression have an upside? It’s complicated, which looked at the uproar raised by Jonah Lehrer’s NY Times Magazine story on “Depression’s Upside.” Depression and evolution: two very complex dynamics there. Much rich ground to explore, this got some great comments. I’ll do more, eventually — in the book, if not before.

Close behind in second place, despite that I posted it only on the 29th, is Accidental brain evolution suffers a reversal. John Hawks should get main credit for this, since almost the whole post is an excerpt of a longer one he wrote about how fast the human brain has grown over time. This testifies, I think, to high interest in how we got the big brains.

Then comes the very gratuitous Satisfaction, which is dogs jumping. (You never know.) Followed by 119 banned words … in one sentence and one of my very irregular daily Gleanings, because of the storms, methinks. On this one I was snookered.