Phineas Gage & the Social Brain Field Trip

Students in a course on the brain and social interaction visit the museum housing Phineas Gage’s skull and discuss it as a case study of the effects of brain injury on social behavior.

Goals:

  • To introduce students to the relationship between brain damage and social behavior.
  • To engage students in the material through first-hand exposure to a famous case in neuroscience history.

Class: PSY1559: The Social Brain

Introduction/Background:

This activity uses a specific case study of focal brain injury that is particularly relevant to the course to launch a broader discussion of what neuroscientists and psychologists can learn from patients with brain damage and what limitations should be kept in mind.  Traveling to the museum to see the damage to Gage's skull in person provides the students with a hands-on experience that is more impactful than simply viewing photographs in textbooks and Powerpoints.

Before Class:

  • Students were assigned two readings to complete prior to class, listed under materials.
  • Students were given instructions and details via email and also verbally in class several weeks before the field trip was to occur about where and when to meet to take the bus to the museum.

During Class

  • Students visited the Warren Anatomical museum at Harvard Medical School. 
  • After viewing the exhibit containing Phineas Gage's skull, tamping iron, and other associated items, they engaged in a discussion about Gage's case - what it teaches about social behavior, why it remains of interest to psychologists and neuroscientists, and more broadly how brain damage can help inform brain function. 
  • Students were asked to specifically relate course readings to Gage's case and speak to generalizations and limitations of lesion studies (studies of patients with brain damage).

Materials:

“Phineas Gage, neuroscience’s most famous patient,” Slate - link

Beer, Jennifer S., et al. "Orbitofrontal cortex and social behavior: integrating self-monitoring and emotion-cognition interactions." Cognitive Neuroscience, Journal of 18.6 (2006): 871-879.

Questions for discussion (attached)

Instructor Comments:

As Powers writes, “This activity is particularly well-suited to smaller classes, to ensure feasibility as well as sufficient in-depth discussion. It is not that a discussion of these issues can't take place in a classroom on campus, but I think that adding a tangible, hands-on dimension to this topic will ground the students' understanding of the issues, increase enthusiasm about the material and enhance the quality of discussion and lessons learned.”

Submitted by Katherine Powers,  Harvard College Fellow, Department of Psychology

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