Where am I? Psychedelics and the Search for Self-Consciousness

Psychedelics are fundamentally changing the way that neuroscientists view the brain, can they help lead the way in the quest to find the basis of self-consciousness?

Evan Lewis-Healey

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In September of 1848, a group of construction workers were tamping down blasting powder with 3cm thick iron rods when an accident sent a rod through the skull of the foreman, Phineas Gage. The rod entered the roof of his mouth and exited through his frontal lobe with immense force.

Thirty minutes after the incident a physician arrived to the victim calmly sitting in a chair, fully conscious, with a gaping hole in his head. Gage calmly told the physician, while covered in blood, “Here is business enough for you.” Gage lived until 1860, another 12 years.

Extraordinary mental changes followed. Before the incident, Gage was described as a balanced, hard-working, and favorable foreman. Afterwards, the physician reported profound mental instability, writing, “The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal pro­pen­si­ties, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity.”

The doctor reported he was so radically changed that to his friends and acquaintances, Gage was, “no longer Gage.”

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Students of psychology, neuroscience, and medicine may yawn at this story — professors tirelessly discuss Gage as the basis of almost every “Introductory To…” lecture. But Gage is a hallmark example of the physicality of our nature. Somehow, Gage’s personality, emotions, and the essence of who he was seemed to be encoded in the billions of neurons in his brain.

Gage posing years later with the tamping rod that caused his brain damage

The tale of Phineas Gage had a huge and widespread influence on neuroscience. Over the next 150 years, hundreds of other case studies were released investigating how abnormalities of the mind were localised to injuries of the brain.

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Evan Lewis-Healey

PhD candidate at Cambridge University. Studying the cognitive neuroscience of altered states of consciousness.