Tomorrow marks the anniversary of a singular event: the day a tamping iron was driven through the head of railroad foreman Phineas Gage during work on a railroad cut in Vermont. Accidents with explosives and flying chunks of metal were all too common in the early days of railroad building, but what makes Gage's case so impressive is that he survived and lived another twelve years as an active, self-supporting man.
Just to be clear, this wasn't some miraculous chance where the iron rod somehow passed through his head without doing any damage. It did plenty of damage. Gage lost an eye and the entire left frontal lobe of his brain. It just didn't kill him. The Wikipedia article is quite informative and debunks some of the more far-out accounts.
On my Other 'Blog, I just posted a piece about my first published story, "A Diagram of Rapture." In part of that little essay I point out that in a very real sense, we are our brains. Unless you believe in an immaterial soul which somehow exists apart from the body, your true identity is the result of the workings of your brain.
But how, then, to account for a case like Phineas Gage? How could he remain himself despite getting half his brain blown out? There are accounts of his behavior changing after the incident, but even today a neurologist would be hard-pressed to decide which changes were due to brain damage, and which were due to the shock of surviving a gruesome near-fatal accident. Maybe Phineas got more licentious and profane afterwards because he decided he wanted to enjoy life while he had it.
About the only thing a materialist like myself can say is that the brain is really, really complex, we still don't know much about how it works, and evidently it can withstand a lot of damage and keep working.
Anyway, be careful with explosives tomorrow.