Holes in our heads (or a few erratic links)

I have been listening to some radio programmes from the archive of Mind Changers, a series about important case studies from the history of psychology. One episode told the story of Phineas Gage, a railway worker who, in 1848, survived a massive trauma when a tamping iron was shot through his head by an explosion. He suffered significant brain injury and became important for the study of neuroscience as people watched how his personality and characteristics changed.

One thing that struck me was that there isn’t definitive evidence/reporting on the impact of the accident. To some extent we don’t really know how it effected him. From his doctor there were some reports of him becoming disinhibited and swearing more often, but records are few. Some other reports on him were not written until 20 years later. There is the suggestion he joined a circus (or a kind of museum for curiosities) but other records indicate that he became a coach driver – a role for which you’d have to be quite self controlled.

The accident occurred at a time when people were starting to theorise that the brain had specialised areas, so some theorists wanted to use his story to illustrate how, when one area of brain destroyed, certain elements of personality/character are destroyed with it. Others thought that all areas of brain carried out all functions, so the fact that he survived and could still live adequately could equally be used to demonstrate this opposing theory.

The question of who is reporting an event and what they remember or what they prioritise also came to mind in two other instances this week. First another Mind Changers programme, about Sigmund Freud and his patient Dora. Freud believed Dora was telling the truth in her account of how her father had offered her to his friend in exchange for the continued sexual favours of the friend’s wife. But Freud was only really interested in the truth of her story for his purposes, in order to prove his theory of infant sexuality. It is another case of selecting or shaping evidence for your own ends.

Taking the idea of reporting events and ‘truth’ in a slightly different direction, I went to see filmmaker Clio Barnard talk about her work. She described how for the film “The Arbor” she interviewed 2 sisters who remembered the same story of a fire in very different ways, one as a story of neglect and the other as a funny occurrence. This relates to memory and how we remember things based on both how we perceived something at the time but also things we imagine or reconstruct them subsequently. For Barnard, this leads to a question of how to depict such stories in film. Her work is concerned with the idea of ‘truth’ and the impossibility of a documentary film that really tells the truth. With another work Road Race, she asked what is more real? – a fiction film that mimics the way we focus our attention in on particular sounds or images, or a film as a document where all sound and vision is given equal weighting. The work depicts a pony and trap race in these two different styles with the result that neither gives access to the full event. Both methods have their limitations.