Stepping back from this blog for a while has allowed me to realise something about its content – given its name, it is notably lop-sided, misleading even. By which I mean it contains a considerable portion of skepticism on a wide variety of topics, but startlingly little material which may be classified “neuro”-related. So, with that in mind, I will endeavour to redress this imbalance over the coming months with a series of posts of a distinctly neurosciencey bent. But don’t be alarmed – they won’t be very technical, or overly detailed, or otherwise impenetrable; all I intend to do is tell a few stories. intriguing stories about remarkable people, people who have expanded our understanding of the brain and how it works.
Let’s start with the tale of Mr. Phineas Gage (1823-1860).
Phineas was a railroad worker, a foreman whose job it was to oversee the laying of a new track for the Rutland & Burlington Railroad through the state of Vermont where autumns were rusty and pastel-coloured. It was a major undertaking, and one aspect of Phineas’ position involved the blasting of rocks from the proposed route of the tracks. A hole would be drilled into the offending outcrop, explosive powder poured into the cavity, then sand poured on top, and the whole cocktail pushed deep into the rock using a long metal rod called a tamping iron. The rod was nearly an inch and a half in diameter, and over three feet long, with one end flat for tamping, the other pointed. It was Phineas who usually did the tamping.
One September afternoon in 1848, as his team were blasting through an area of countryside near the town of Cavendish, a dreadful accident occurred. Perhaps someone forgot to add the sand, we can’t be sure, but whatever the cause, as Phineas tamped down into the hole, the iron rod sparked off the rock, igniting the powder and driving the tamping iron out – like a bullet from a gun – at tremendous speed.
It entered Phineas’ head just below the left cheekbone, travelling upwards. Severing the optic nerve but missing the eye, it continued its destructive path through his brain, ablating portions of the left frontal lobe before exiting through the top of his head. It was said that the rod landed over 100 feet away, although this may be exaggerated. Remarkably though, this injury did not kill Phineas – he was unwell for a long period following, suffering from a severe infection immediately after the incident and teetering at death’s door for several months. But, over time and with care from a dedicated physician, Dr John Harlow, he did eventually recover, regaining much of his independence.
But the most remarkable thing about Mr Gage was the dramatic change in his behaviour and personality after the drastic loss of frontal tissue. While it is difficult to distinguish fact from myth in this regard – stories about him becoming a drunk, a gambler and a violent, profane blackguard have definitely been fabricated – what we can be certain of is the fact that he was a changed man afterwards. He was now easily distracted, found it difficult to focus his attention for long or organise his time, and had difficulty in breaking off from an activity he was engaged in – for example, if slicing a loaf of bread, he might continue to cut through the bread board (this is known as perseveration, a common feature of people who have suffered a frontal brain injury). Here was quite compelling evidence for what functions were carried out by the areas of cortex obliterated in Gage’s brain; the frontal lobes, it seemed, were responsible for attention, engagement in tasks, organising behaviour. This unfortunate accident inadvertently shed light on the previously guarded secrets of the brain.
Gage lived for another 12 years following the injury. It was said that he spent some time in P.T. Barnum’s museum, appearing for the public with his tamping iron (which he kept with him for the rest of his days) as a curio. Later he spent time working in a stables, and then as a stagecoach driver in Chile. He eventually died in 1860 in San Francisco following a series of severe convulsions. And there the story appeared to end; his enduring legacy was to endure ongoing fame in textbooks on medicine and neuroscience, psychology and cognition, as scientists pointed to the strange case of Phineas Gage as one of the earliest clues to the functions of the brain, and as an example of how we can learn so much about the intact brain from the study of the injured one. Generations of students have been educated in the sciences knowing the name and fate of Phineas Gage, but none ever knew his face.
Until 2008. In that year, Jack and Beverly Wilgus, a couple who ran an antique photograph company in the US, posted on their website of stock an image of a well-dressed and handsome man with a sewn-shut left eye and holding a long pole. It was a daguerreotype, an early type of photograph using a shiny surface, which they called The Whaler in the belief that the rod was a whaling harpoon, and that the facial scars the man displayed were linked to a violent encounter at sea. People soon contacted the Wilgus website informing them that the pole was not a harpoon, and some wondered if the man might possibly be Gage.
They compared the man’s face to the life-mask of Gage; the scars matched. The compared the rod to the tamping iron, which is on display in the medical museum which also has Gage’s skull; the inscription also matched. It reads:
“This is the bar that was shot through the head of Mr Phineas P. Gage at Cavendish, Vermont, Sept. 13,1848. He fully recovered from the injury & deposited this bar in the Museum of the Medical College of Harvard University. Phineas P. Gage Lebanon Grafton Cy N-H Jan 6 1850.”
Finally, after 160 years, the face of Phineas Gage, the man who inadvertently paved the way for much of modern neuroscience, was revealed to the public. It was widely believed that this was the only existing image of Gage following the accident, but within two months, a distant relative of Gage’s brother, Tara Gage-Miller, contacted the Wilgus family with a pocket portrait of the same man, who she knew as a strange historical relative. She knew of the story of his injury, but had no conception of the massive public interest in her distant uncle.
So, out of sheer serendipity, new generations of students will now learn the story of Phineas Gage, but he will no longer be an abstract, vague spectre of a nineteenth century railway man. They can at last look on the face of a simple and proud man who had much taken from him, but who gave back more than he could ever have dreamed.
You can see the photographs here:
and read more about his story here:
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As you approach Maynooth by train, you’ll see on your left a tiny, overgrown cemetary. Once you can spy the obelisk in the distance, you’ll notice it squatting oddly in a large field, grazing cows the only other occupants. It’s clearly very old; encircled by a low stone wall, the headstones lean and tilt at strange angles, bush and hedge encroaching upon the plots from all sides giving them the chaotic look of ruined teeth in the mouth of a bearded face. Toward the centre, trees have overrun what must once have been the little mortuary chapel, while ivy seeks to cover every last visible trace of stonework. Through the leaves and briar, you can just discern the warped metal railings that marked the perimeter of the plots – they were the style in generations past, before stone enclosures became the norm.
Passing this lonely oddity every day brings difficult thoughts to mind. I look at the headstones – mostly grey, but some of white marble; the faces all appear smooth, any trace of engraving long since worn away by weather and time. The identities of those buried there now lost, perhaps forever. And those who once tended these graves, they surely must have passed on by now as well. And what of those who, in turn, once placed flowers on their resting places? After just two generations, are the markers of these lives destined to be utterly abandoned in such manner?
When the words have been eroded from my own headstone, when those who tended the graves of those who tended mine have all gone – what then?
As we pass through life, change and decay seem to follow close at our heels, while erosion and oblivion creep toward us from ahead. Trapped so between the two burning ends of a narrow bridge, what are any of us to do in the time before the fall?
Try to leave some mark, perhaps. Create something that might endure past the day when our bones have rejoined the dust that made them. Like a traveller crossing a wilderness who leaves a rock at a crossing point: none may come that way again, but if someone does, someday, they might see that rock and know – someone passed this way, once. And maybe feel comfort from that. And perhaps wonder who he was.
Every morning, I board a train and head toward that sad, solitary graveyard.
Don’t we all?
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I didn’t make it out to Punchestown this year. It’s become alien to me now.
I’m not talking about Witness or Oxegen or whatever they call it this year. Long before someone had the notion to turn the course into a concert venue (thereby ensuring my Aunie Pat would endure days of being effectively under house-arrest, God be good to her), Punchestown meant – to Naasianites, at any rate – racing. And specifically, it connoted the National Hunt Festival, the last week of April, and three days of memory-making.
Punchestown was the glittering gem in a golden childhood. From before we could walk, we were wheeled in buggies and prams out the few miles towards Blessington, then right at Beggar’s End, past the field with the standing stone that Finn MacCumhaill was meant to have thrown from Tara Hill, and out to Punchestown. The schools in Naas would all close for the week (the teachers would all be out on the track, so who’d teach us?), and on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the last week of April, the racecourse became a wonderland. For at the centre of the track, accessed via a sandy causeway across the course (with gates operated by young lads who were clearly go-boys), there sprawled a fairground of sorts. Well, fairground makes it sound more organised than it was; hurdy-gurdies my da used to call them, at that term captures some element of the ramshackle nature of the place. It was a shanty-town of brightly coloured, striped tarps and canopies, chair-o-planes, bumpers, the Skyways and the Octopus, rides for 50p, stalls covered in clear cellophane pedalling what-nots and bric-a-brac, roulette wheels, unwinnable hoopla, the mouse through the door game and an arcade in the back of a HGV container. You could keep your Disneyworld, to an eight year old, this was the happiest place on earth.
With the advent of cars (to my family) in the early ’80s, we’d drive out in convoy – us, our cousins, their cousins – and park at the First Fence inside the whitewashed wooden railings. Tuesday lunchtime. A few games of jump-the-upbank (the earth ditch that flanked the brush and twig fence) with my cousins, back to the car for a picnic from the boot – sandwiches and Seven-Up and Wheelies and packets of Polo biscuits. The smell of freshly cropped grass. Then dangle over the railings as the first race started, the earthy smell of horses mixed with leather tack, the flashing colours of the jockeys’ silks as they blurred past. The echoing commentary of the course PA system competing with the car-radio broadcast as the horses disappeared over the hill and beyond to who-knew-where (the second fence). Get the result – ask if anyone had a winner. Back to playing on the Upbank, repeat as required.
Being the last week of April, the weather was reliably variable. Some years the sun would beat down on us as we reclined in plastic deck-chairs or lay on rugs in the soft grass; other times, the hailstones drove down so powerfully that car alarms were activated to right and left of us. And then there was the muck. The hours spent trying to wedge a piece of wood under rear wheels so that the car could gain some purchase and escape the mire. But usually conditions were fair, if brisk – Punchestown is a place to exposed and flat that, even on the hottest day of the year, you can still feel the chill in the wind that rakes across the fields.
After the second race, down to the hurdy-gurdies en masse. Peruse the assorted toys and tat at the stalls – all were the real thing, only the writing on the packet was in French. Or German. Or Arabic. Thence, on to the rides; small change clenched in sweaty hand, wait your turn for the end of the bumpers, cue up for the Waltzer, cling onto the safety bar as centrifugal forces fling you skyward. Stagger over to the Outside Tote; reach up to the tiny window to put your 50p Each-Way on some hopeless nag. Hope for a winner. Just to be able to say you had a Winner. Wait for the race to pass before the gates open, and then back to the cars.
The adults (and when we were older, us in our turn) would go “Inside”, paying through the turnstyle to get into the area of the parade ring, the grandstand, the bookies and the Long Bar. The echoing, nasal voice of the PA system as it called “The white flag is raised…. and they’re off!” There was a sort of log and rope climbing frame area behind the stand, but what self-respecting child would waste time there when Narnia-on-LSD lay just across the track? Inside had the feel of a secret place for grown-ups, where people like my da and my uncle seemed most at home; where waxed jackets and cloth caps were the dress-code; a place so clandestine that, on leaving to return “outside” to the car, you were given a stamp on your hand that was only visible in ultra-violet light. The smell of chips-drowned-in-vinegar, served in a greasy white plastic tub, as it mingled with generator fumes. Bumping into neighbours or friends who unerringly enquired “Any tips for me?”
The town of Naas transformed for that week. Think of Mardi Gras, only in Kildare. Bar extensions were in effect, with pubs closing, well, basically when everyone went home. Six-deep at the bar, spilling out onto the streets, people drinking on top of litter bins, leaning on windowsills. And the street entertainment: a band would play from the back of a trailer on the main street. The Barman’s Race up the main street – Martella pushing, Del in the wheelbarrow. And the legendary Pig Race – a lineup of celebrity pigs, each sponsored by a different local business (my da trained the Post Office’s entry, Porkman Pat) – raced on a track made of hay bails in front of the Court House. The crowd loved it. The pigs loved it. The animal rights people didn’t, and so the great race was no more, ending a tradition that stretched back two years. All that remains of it now is a child’s t-shirt (medium) with Naas Pig Race and a comical cartoon of the event on it. If that even remains - I have a feeling my mam uses it as a duster now.
Stretching from my earliest memories up to the mid-nineties, Punchestown was a dream factory. So many stories beginning with “the year this happened” or “the year that happened”. Like the year I had my photo taken with Red Rum – he was on show in a horsebox Inside; the year Buck House and Dawn Run battled it out in a two-horse race with only pride at stake; the year I won £70 on the outside tote for my 50p bet (Gaiety Lass, the horse was called) - I was 11 and £70 made me a millionaire. Being driven home at the end of the day, limbs too tired to even lift, as the sun set behind MacCumhaill’s stone, happy in the knowledge that tomorrow promised more of the same.
It began to change from around 1994 onwards. I had continued to make my pilgrimage out there every year, long after the hurdy-gurdies had lost their allure. It was as much tribute to my da as anything else; this place was his Mecca, so I went religiously to worship each year. Put on a few quid here and there. Maybe break even; maybe lose a few. The changing of the layout of the course was the beginning of the end for Old Punchestown; they diverted the track (for certain longer races) to run directly through the site of the fairground. For a few years, the rides remained out at the course, shunted down past the first fence, but eventually they relocated altogether into the town. That started the slow conspiracy to drive the locals away, and simultaneously drive the fun from Punchestown. The next knell was the refurbishment of Inside – which meant the demolition of the Long Bar (I understand it used to be the longest single bar surface in Ireland) in favour of corporate suites and space for marquees. Next, the outside tote was knocked down. And then the dress-code seemed to change. Where once the only people wearing expensive suits were people who actually owned the horses, now all manner of tourists, clad in shirts and ties, with accompanying women vying to get noticed by the cameras for Lady’s Day, steadily began to infiltrate the event. Soon, I was the one feeling like an outsider; a blow-in in my own home.
Still I persisted; I adopted the suit and tie, rationalising it as a mark of respect for the occasion. I’d make my way out, place a few bets, see a few friends (“any tips?”), drink a pint, eat a hotdog, lose some money. It felt dirty. It isn’t My Punchestown any more – now it’s a slick, polished, revenue-generating event. It has little to do with racing – the majority of patrons who attend, I’ll wager, spend their day in the bars and tents, and never set foot in the grandstand. Gone is the rough-and-ready, held-together-by-twine-and-catgut approach that gave it such charm. It’s big business now.
The final insult came this year. I can’t recall when they decided to add in a fourth day to the festival – I’ll guess somewhere around ’93 or ’94. But for 2010, for the first time in history, they extended it to a five day event, sprawling from the Tuesday to the Saturday in an effort to squeeze any last few cents from the pockets of the eager to part with them. But that wasn’t the worst of it – the Great and the Good who make these decisions, in an effort to encourage more people to attend “after work” and save them “having to take the day off”, decreed that the first race should start at 4.00pm rather than the traditional lunchtime start which had been in place since the Eighteen-hundreds. Hearing that gave me the sort of sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that I used to get on the Octopus.
“Having to take the day off” to go to Punchestown was the whole point. But the point, it seems to me, is something that these people have a good track record of missing. Their efforts to turn my childhood haven into the equivalent of Cheltenham-in-reverse with their greed-driven tactics, it makes me lament. I wonder what the children of this generation will do for wonderment and magic. I suppose they have Disneyworld for that…
The more I learn, the more I begin to see that change, not stability, is the natural state of things in nature. I’d best just surrender to it, I suppose - raise the white flag to the passage of time. Nothing stays the same; everything is in flux; always has been, and always will be.
But that knowledge doesn’t make the passing of something that was beautiful any easier to bear.
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