It was frigid and damp at dawn the last day Phineas Gage arrived to work on time.
As he shoved his hands in the pockets of his jacket and cut through the cold, he contemplated the challenges that lie ahead building the Burlington railroad through Vermont. In the 18 months he’d served as foreman, the crew made considerable progress, but the terrain they were now forced to conquer was rocky and unforgiving.
The early dawn light, softened by the moisture in the air, scarcely lit the winding path to the job site. The distant rhythm of iron sledgehammers thumping in sequence was soothing and forced an early-morning smile from Phineas’ lips. His crew was on the job a full 15 minutes before first whistle.
Phineas had earned his reputation as “the most efficient and capable foreman” in the company. The discipline and passion he brought to the site ensured projects were completed on time, and the social niceties he espoused made him a favorite with the men he supervised. A “shrewd, smart business man,” he walked his talk, avoided the alluring depravity of the local saloon, and got along famously with everyone he met.
The day wore on with the usual efficiency. Yard by yard Phineas and his crew laid the tracks, blasting through the rugged terrain in the quest to speed travel for busy commuters. By the time he glanced at his watch at 4:30, they had added half a mile to the rail line.
With skill Phineas thrust his 43 inch tamping iron into the angled blasting hole and entertained thoughts of the day he retrieved this special rod from the local blacksmith. The brawny craftsman had explained to Phineas with uncharacteristic glee that this iron was unlike any other he had ever seen.
Before taking the next swing in his daily exercise of geometry and strength, Phineas signaled his assistant to pour sand in the blasting hole. The layer of sand would protect the powder from exploding prematurely while he packed it with the tamping iron.
As Phineas reared back to swing, he was startled by a shrill racket behind him. Peering over his right shoulder, he discovered the crew in the pit had knocked over a large load of boulders they were transferring to a platform car with a crane. Phineas sighed briefly to mourn the setback, then completed his swing with the iron, naïve to the fact that his assistant was also distracted by the noise.
The assistant failed to place sand in the hole and the scrape of Phineas’ iron against the rock perimeter of the crevice created a spark big enough to ignite the unprotected powder at the bottom. The raw force of the explosion launched Phineas’ tamping iron like a rocket. It pierced his face below his left eye and continued upward through the top of his head and beyond. The iron finally settled in the weeds 100 feet from the spot where Phineas stood.
Phineas’ body flew backward from the impact and he lay silently for a moment, writhing in shock. A thin whisper of air disguised his overwhelming desire to scream─it was all the noise he could force from his lungs. He could feel the wound below his eye where the 13 pound tamping iron—43 inches long and a full inch and a quarter in diameter—had thrust itself through his face. He had no sensation of the massive hole the iron left as it emerged through the top of his head.
The world as he knew it changed forever that afternoon.
Phineas’ loyal crew rushed to his side and looked into his eyes for any sign of life. They laughed anxiously as Phineas peered up at them and groaned, “I think I’m going to need to see Dr. Harlow.” His sense of humor still intact, Phineas’ men loaded him into an ox cart to take him to town.
Sitting upright in the cart with his own strength, Phineas noticed his assistant walking somberly beside him. He leaned over and made a request typical of any foreman leaving the job site, “Hand me the book please.” Like young boys watching their father perform a Herculean feat of strength, the bemused railroad workers stood in awe as Phineas logged his exit from the job site.
At 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, September 13, 1848—just one hour after his horrific accident—Phineas Gage stood unassisted on the patio of the town hotel. The local physician, expecting nothing coherent to come from Phineas’ lips, asked his crew for a briefing. “Well, here’s enough work for you Doctor,” Phineas interrupted before anyone could speak, “The iron entered here and came out my head here.”
Despite having the front portion of his brain scooped from his skull much like you might a hunk of melon at breakfast, Phineas could think and speak much like he could before the accident. He was treated earnestly in the coming weeks by Dr. Harlow and eventually his physical wounds healed. The accident seemed to leave nothing more than scars and blindness in his left eye.
Phineas’ survival and quick recovery baffled everyone. As he tried to return to business as usual on the railroad, they realized something was hauntingly different. His first peculiar new habit was his temper. He cursed like a sailor and gave conflicting orders that followed his mood. Every impulse Phineas had exploded unfettered into action, and he made his men feel like they were an inch tall.
The man who never arrived late for work was now apathetic about getting the job done.
For the 11 years Phineas lived after the accident, he was transformed. Dr. Harlow’s detailed notes describe a pervasive change in his behavior that could only be explained, literally, by the missing portion of his mind,
“The effect of the injury appears to have been the destruction of the equilibrium between his intellectual faculties and the animal propensities. He was now capricious, fitful, irreverent, impatient of restraint, vacillating…His physical recovery was complete, but those who knew him as a shrewd, smart, energetic, persistent business man, recognized the change in mental character. The balance of his mind was gone.”
Lessons From Phineas
To put it bluntly, Phineas’ emotional intelligence left his head for good that morning. In removing the front portion of his brain, the tamping iron took with it his ability to turn his emotions into reasoned action. Phineas was left a walking, talking, sentient being, yet one with very little self-control.
His intellect remained intact. He could do complicated math problems and understood the logistics of building the railroad. He lived independently, just as he had before the blast. Those he met assumed his rash behavior was just a part of his personality, but previous acquaintances knew differently.
Phineas’ grisly accident continues to intrigue us today. His survival was truly a miracle and the changes in his behavior teach us more about the brain than the most sophisticated technology available. Modern devices can map the brain to show which areas are most important for different types of thought, but no gadget can show how a human behaves with a portion of his brain removed.
Unlike Phineas, we have a choice in how we respond to our emotions. Each of us takes in information from the world around us through the five senses. Everything we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch travels through the body in the form of electric signals. These signals pass from cell to cell until they reach their ultimate destination, the brain. If a mosquito bites you on the leg, that sensation creates signals that must travel to your brain before you are aware of the pest.
Our sensations enter the brain in one place at the back near the spinal chord. Complex, rational thinking happens on the opposite side of the brain, at the front, which is the same part that Phineas lost.
When the electric signals enter your brain, they must travel all the way across it before you can have your first logical thought about the event. This is a problem because they pass through the limbic system along the way. This is the area in the brain where emotions are experienced. Signals passing through the limbic system ensure you have an emotional reaction to events first.
The front of the brain can’t stop the emotion “felt” in the limbic system. Instead, the two areas communicate constantly. This process of communication is the physical source of emotional intelligence.
After his accident, poor Phineas was all emotion. In losing the entire front portion of his brain, he lost his ability to reason and react to his emotions. Indeed, everything he encountered, every experience he had, resulted in a rash emotional response. Phineas had zero ability to manage his feelings or even understand their presence. Every hour of every day Phineas was overcome by his emotions.
Our brains are wired to make us emotional creatures. By experiencing the emotional response to an event first, our feelings are strong motivators of behavior. The location of the limbic system ensures that emotions play a critical role in every action we take.
The Critical Link
It should be no surprise, then, that emotional intelligence is critical to success in the workplace. TalentSmart tested emotional intelligence alongside 33 other important workplace skills, and found that emotional intelligence is the strongest predictor of performance, explaining a full 58 percent of success in all types of jobs.
Of all the people we’ve studied at work, we’ve found that 90 percent of top performers are also high in emotional intelligence.
Naturally, people with a high degree of emotional intelligence make more money—an average of $29,000 more per year than people with low emotional intelligence. The link between emotional intelligence and earnings is so direct that every point increase in emotional intelligence adds $1,300 to an annual salary.
These findings hold true for people in all industries, at all levels, in every region of the world. We haven’t yet been able to find a job in which performance and pay aren’t tied closely to emotional intelligence.
Bringing It All Together
After the accident Phineas lost his job at the railroad. Intelligence alone was not enough for him to succeed. In the years that followed he had difficulty holding down a job anywhere else. With the rational part of his brain gone forever, poor Phineas didn’t stand a chance.
Remember the plight of poor Phineas and don’t take your rational brain for granted.
And please share your thoughts in the comments section as I learn just as much from you as you do from me.
Want to learn more from me? Check out my book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0.