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The Phineas Gage Goose That Poe Predicted

The great thing about the local news is that...well, it’s the local news. Whereas national newscasts might occasionally busy themselves with stories that make you want to stick your head in the sand or an an oven, small towns across the country are...

by Trevor Macomber
May 2 2012, 3:00pm

The great thing about the local news is that…well, it's the local news. Whereas national newscasts might occasionally busy themselves with stories that make you want to stick your head in the sand (or an oven), small towns across the country are consistently able to tickle the dark part of your funny bone with headlines like this: “Arrow through head hasn’t stopped footloose goose in Old Lyme.”

Footloose…as in Kevin Bacon…Canadian bacon…Canada geese! (Three degrees of separation — nice work, of Connecticut.) Anyway, it's a thing:

Now, in decades past, discerning audiences like ourselves would have had to be content with week-old newspaper clippings and/or visual aid-free telephone calls to friends if we really wanted to share something like this — assuming we could even be motivated to share it in the first place. (I mean, scissors? How do those work again?) But thanks to Pepe le Internet, social, vicarious infotainment is rarely more than a click away — though usually with a greater emphasis on the "tainment" than the "info."

For example, in the case above, nobody knows which William Tell wannabe shot the poor goose originally, and nobody has been able to catch it since. Frankly, considering the story first broke in early February, it's amazing that the foul-tempered fowl has survived this long. (According to local animal control officer Sandy Bannon, “the arrow obviously [isn’t] hitting anything vital and the goose is eating, drinking, and it flies when we try to catch it,” so I guess this goose isn’t cooked yet. Bannon also said she was “gonna plop” a net over his head to try to bring him in for surgery.)

The real question now is, when someone finally is able to plop a net over his head (perhaps a founding member of local animal rights group, Reduce Goose Abuse?), will its winning personality still be intact, or are we potentially dealing with the next Phineas Gage here? (Pheasantas Gage? Phineas Game? Please, somebody stop me now.)

Gage, as I’m sure (seven of) you will recall, is the much-studied railroad construction foreman whose unfortunate encounter with a 43-inch tamping iron in 1848 left him as Exhibit A (as in, Exhibit AHHHH, THERE’S A TAMPING IRON IN MY HEAD!) for a century-and-a-half's worth of discussion about the role our frontal lobe plays in determining personality. As the story goes, Gage was setting an explosive charge that went off accidentally, shooting the huge rod through his eye socket and out the top of his head.

According to Wikipedia, “Weighing 13 1⁄4 lb (6 kg), this ’abrupt and intrusive visitor”’ was said to have landed some 80 feet (25 m) away ‘smeared with blood and brain,’" and yet Gage was up and walking about in minutes. Though there is little reliable information about Gage's overall character before and after his injury, stories abound regarding his severe change in disposition after his slow recovery from the physical effects of his terrible headache.

Of course, not all head injuries conspire to change someone's personality so drastically. Some people are simply born wild and crazy:

Others, like Gage, have wild and crazy thrust upon them — and, as a result, remain alluring well after their departure from this realm. And who better to turn to when discussing departures from this realm than the Bard of Weird, Edgar Allen Poe. Poe is obviously best known for his works of the fictional macabre, but it’s his inadvertent non-fiction that has earned him (modest) headlines recently: Eric Altschuler, a neurologist at New Jersey Medical School, proposed last week that Poe's posthumously published short story, “The Business Man,” actually contains the first comprehensive description of what is now known as frontal lobe syndrome — despite being drafted eight years before Gage's well-publicized accident.

As the good doctor explains, "It's so exact that it's just weird, it's like he had a time machine…There's a dozen symptoms and he knows every single one." Of course, Altschuler’s ingenuity on this subject may not have sat well with Poe himself — or at least his titular business man, who exclaims early in the story that, "If there is any thing on earth I hate, it is a genius. Your geniuses are all arrant asses—the greater the genius the greater the ass—and to this rule there is no exception whatever. " All of which makes you wonder: if Poe can explain frontal lobe syndrome, what can explain Poe?