Nervous? Anxious? Blame evolution.

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Early sketch of the path the iron took through Gage's skill

Early sketch of the path the iron took through Gage’s skill

Phineas Gage is famous because he had an accident at work one day. As a railroad foreman in 1848, one of his jobs was to run around filling holes with gunpowder, adding a fuse, and then packing on sand with a tamping iron. One crisp September afternoon, Phineas forgot to add sand to one hole.  So when his tamping iron struck the hole, it sparked, ignited the gunpowder, and blew the iron right through the front part of his skull. Understandably, Phineas hit the ground before his tamping iron did.

Amazingly, in just a few minutes, Phineas regained consciousness. In just a few months, he went back to work–a little cranky perhaps, but none the worse for wear.  In fact, by most medical accounts of the day, he was fine, and he lived that way for another 12 years.

Considering the extent of the violence perpetrated against poor Phineas’s noggin, it didn’t take long for scientist to start asking: “Exactly which part of his brain did Phineas lose?” and, “Just what does it do anyway?” The best they could come up with at the time was: “The frontal lobe (generally)” and “I guess not much.”

By 1949, those answers began to change a bit when a Portuguese physician named Antonio Egas Moniz won the Nobel Prize for Medicine after devising a procedure called the frontal lobotomy. This nifty bit of surgery (which involved slicing up areas of the frontal lobe) was remarkably effective in calming psychotic patients.

So, logically the new consensus was that the frontal lobe of the brain was good for something–making you crazy.

But it wasn’t until Walter Freeman, an American neurologist and psychiatrist, got wind of this that scrambling parts of the frontal lobe became standard treatment in stubborn cases of anxiety and depression. You’ll notice here that I did not say: “. . .Freeman, a well trained surgeon. . .” or  “. . . Freeman who, it is said, had once dissected a toad . . .”

Still, Freeman was able to develop, without any sort of surgical training, a knack for driving actual ice picks through people’s eye sockets and into their brains.

I can’t stress enough the fact that Freeman was not a mad scientist performing secret surgeries in his basement. He actually went on tour driving his van, dubbed (and I am not making this up) the “lobotomobile,” across the nation demonstrating his procedure at state-run institutions. In fact, it’s reported that part of his show even included icepicking both of a patient’s eye sockets at one time — one with each hand.

He was the wildest, rootenist, tootenist lobotomist in the west.

All told, Freeman performed over 2,500 lobotomies from the mid ’30s to the mid 50′s. And at the time, most of his patients seemed fine–better than fine actually, when you took into account that their anxiety had miraculously vanished. If you were to meet one on the street corner or in a coffee shop, you could easily make small talk and never be the wiser. In fact, patients with frontal lobe damage passed standard IQ and memory tests with flying colors.

Problems started showing up, however, when scientists began giving these people simple puzzles or problems that involved planning. As it turns out, these folks were able to chew gum and walk and even talk at the same time but went all to pieces when you asked what they were doing later that day. Asked if they were looking forward to the weekend, they would be completely baffled.

They could still talk about time–in general terms. The idea of seconds, minutes and hours would not escape them. They knew that 2:00 comes “before” 3:00, and that you go to bed “after” dinner. It’s just that the future only existed as a concept–like infinity or heaven.

What’s there to worry about when the future is only an abstract concept?  People with frontal lobe damage truly live in the moment.  How can you have anxiety about the future when you can hardly imagine such a thing?

And in reality concepts like the “future” and the “past” are just that. Concepts. As odd as this might sound, the future is really only an idea that lives in your imagination. You can’t touch it or measure it. You can only imagine it. The future only exists in your mind—your frontal lobe, to be exact.

By the way, the frontal lobe is also what distinguishes us from animals (who don’t think about the future either, by the way).  Archeologists tell us it was the last part of the human brain to evolve.

So, if I might sum up, at this point in evolution, we’ve developed a frontal lobe in order to imagine the future, make plans, implement them, and use time in a creative way.  The problem is, we haven’t yet developed an off switch for it.  So while our frontal lobe allows us to look forward to an imagined future, it also gives us the ability to worry constantly about it as well.

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