How Do We Actually Reason?
What a rod taught us about the human brain
For decades past, man has always known (or thought, anyway) there was something different about him, separate from all other forms of life on earth. Perhaps it was our opposable thumbs, our upright gait or our need to ensure pollut—I mean, civilisation.
It’s clearer now that our level of mentation was the key. Our ability to reason, even in the midst of emotions, ego and instincts.
Yet this doesn’t always go as planned. How come we can tie a shoelace or find food but can’t figure out things like what to do with our lives?
Well, let’s begin with the story of a man called Phineas Gage.
The Rod That Wasn’t Spared
TW: slight violence.
Perhaps the only way to describe an iron rod plunging through someone’s skull. For an unsuspecting Phineas Gage, it was supposed to be yet another day at work, at the Railroad Station.
But life, it seemed, had other plans.
In an improbable freak accident following an explosion while blasting at rocks, the tamping iron from a blast hole ricocheted right through the left side of Gage’s face. In one of the worst cases of “wrong place, wrong timing” ever, the rod somehow passed behind his left eye and out the top of his skull through the frontal bone.
A moment of silence, please…
Well, except, Phineas didn’t die. It took a while but he survived and even continued with his life, fully functional otherwise.
Until his friends and family started noticing a shift in his personality. But worse? His rationality and self-control. Previously described as “perfectly healthy, strong and active young man, twenty-five years of age, nervo-bilious temperament”, his change was jarring.
He became “fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible.”
TL;DR? He became problematic.
What This Meant For Our Brain
This unfortunate event became a milestone in the way the human brain was understood. Long before we got the luxury of functional brain scans that now piece the puzzle together, all we had to go off with was assumptions.
And so came this interesting one: perhaps the “front” of the brain was necessary for rational behaviour. What prevented us from being primitive, deferring only to instincts, with no self-control?
This turned out to be right. And more functional parts of the brain have since been discovered. Like the way, the farthest “back” of the brain is implicated in vision. And how the “sides” are expedient for hearing and language.
The frontal lobe was found to be necessary for cognition. Fancy words aside, it basically means it’s the seat of knowledge and reasoning.
But with what we know about the development of the brain (should we talk about this another time?), back-to-the-front is the name of the game. So much so that the frontal lobe hasn’t even fully developed till the adult stage. It’s the final area of the brain to mature (theorised to occur between a certain adult age).
“The frontal lobe is where we move beyond the futile search for black-and-white solutions as we learn to tolerate —and act on—better shades of gray,” - Meg Jay
But regardless of what the age theories about maturity are, experience and practice play a huge role.
There’s a lot to this amazing organ called the brain.
Till next week,
Now go solve that confusing equation in the first doodle.
TW - trigger warning
TL;DR - too long, didn’t read.