On Episode 3 of Stranger Things 2, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) bursts into class late and disrupts his science teacher’s lecture on the strange case of Phineas Gage, a man who survived an extraordinary brain injury and emerged with a completely new personality. Dustin and his friends are fans of Mr. Clarke's (Randy Havens) class, but have more pressing matters to consider at that moment – namely, the pollywog that Dustin’s just discovered in his garbage can. Had Dustin paid attention to Mr. Clarke’s lecture, though, he might've noticed the striking parallels between the story of Phineas Gage and what their friend, Will (Noah Schnapp), was going through.
Gage is a legend in the world of neuroscience and psychology. Thanks to an accident Gage sustained on September 13, 1848, our understanding of the human mind changed forever.
At the time of the accident, Gage was a railroad foreman working near the town of Cavendish, Vermont. His team was clearing rocks to make way for the new rail line. Gage was packing explosive power with a hole using a tamping iron, when suddenly, the powder detonated. The 43-inch long, 1.25 inch wide, and 13 pound tamping iron pierced through Gage’s left cheek, slid through his brain, and exited the other side of the skull. The iron clanked a few dozen feet away from where Gage was standing. Incredibly, Gage remained conscious the entire time.
Gage survived, but it was rough going: he was blinded in one eye, suffered a fungal infection in the brain, and fell into a coma. Though his body eventually recovered, his personality emerged from the accident utterly changed.
In the days following the accident, Gage’s personality underwent such a dramatic shift that his friends pronounced, “Gage was longer Gage.” His doctor, John Martyn Harlow, wrote that, "He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity, which was not previously his custom.” Essentially, Gage was no longer the person he had been.
Unable to hold down a job, Gage became a drifter, bouncing from a job in a stable in New Hampshire to working as a coach driver in Chile. He died in 1860 in San Francisco of a seizures related to his brain injury.
Gage’s story had huge repercussions in advancing the study of neurology and psychology. Back in the 1800s, scientists still practiced phrenology, the art of measuring bumps in the skull, in order to determine someone’s personality. Gage’s account proved the link between the brain and personality.
"He was the first case where you could say fairly definitely that injury to the brain produced some kind of change in personality," Malcolm Macmillan, the author of An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage, told NPR.
In particular, this account changed our understanding of the role of the frontal lobe, where Gage had been injured. The frontal lobe is most commonly injured through concussions, not through stray tamping irons. After concussions, people’s cognitive function, like attention spans and concentration abilities, may be affected.
So, what does Phineas Gage have to do with the Stranger Things? Clearly, the story was included for a reason. In essence, this is the story of someone who emerges from a personal experience drastically altered. This might remind you of Will Byers, who, a year after being rescued from the Upside-Down with no physical wounds, is not the same boy he once was.
At first, Will just seems to be particularly moony-eyed and prone to visions of the Upside Down. Soon, though, he changes more drastically. Will’s temperature drops to the point that he can’t take a bath in hot water, and he begins to lose his memory. The medical team observes extreme changes in his brain. As with Phineas Gage, Will isn’t Will anymore.
If Stranger Things' creators really are drawing a parallel between Gage and Will, then Will's ending might not ultimately be a happy one. Gage never recovered his former self. A chunk of Will may always remain somewhere in the Upside Down.
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