Nothing captivates us more than the human mind. We are constantly attempting to understand the origins of behavior and the intricate workings of the brain. Throughout our history, there have been particular people whose story is so astonishing that they have remained a source of constant curiosity and learning. Here are 10 extraordinary cases from the realm of psychology that continue to fascinate.
In 1848, Phineas Gage was working as a foreman on a railroad crew in Vermont. While he was using a tamping iron to pack some explosive powder, the powder exploded, driving the iron through his head. Amazingly, he survived but friends noted that he no longer acted like the same person. He had limited intellectual ability and there were acute changes in his personality. He spewed profanity, was highly impulsive and showed little regard for other people. The change in Gage’s personality is consistent with damage to the orbitofrontal cortex of his frontal lobe, which impacts affect and emotion. It was one of the first cases to show a link between the brain and personality, in addition to cognitive functions.
Louis Victor Leborgne (Tan)
Similar to what H.M. did for memory, the case of Louis Victor Leborgne made significant contributions to the study of language production and comprehension. At age 30, he was admitted to a Paris hospital after losing his ability to speak. He could only say the word “tan” and was later called by that name in recalling his case. Despite his inability to speak, his cognitive functions appeared intact. Leborgne could comprehend what was being said to him and retained his intelligence. In 1861 he met physician Paul Broca after developing Gangrene. Upon Leborgne’s death, Broca examined his brain and found a lesion in his left frontal lobe. Due to Leborgne’s language, Broca postulated that this area of the brain was responsible for speech production. This area of the brain has become known as Broca’s area (Leborgne’s condition is called Broca’s aphasia) and is one of the most significant findings in the neurological study of speech.
Bertha Pappenheim (Anna O)
Bertha Pappenheim is thought to be the first person to undergo psychotherapy. Although her case is usually associated with the work of Sigmund Freud, it was his colleague, Joseph Breuer, who was initially her treating physician. Pappenheim suffered from “hysteria” as well as hallucinations and various ailments. Despite some records noting that she was cured by talk therapy, certain historians report that her improvements were temporary and she was never cured. Although Freud never met Pappenheim, he often publicly referred to Anna O. as the first recipient of the “talking cure” and said it was her case that was responsible for the birth of psychoanalysis.
In 1920, psychologist John Watson and his future wife, Rosalind Rayner, experimented on an infant to prove the theory of classical conditioning. They called the baby “Albert B.” And the case became known as the “Little Albert” experiment. Watson and Rayner paired a white rat and other objects with a loud noise to condition a fear response in Albert. The experiment showed that people can be conditioned to have emotional responses to a previously neutral object and that the response can be generalized to other stimuli. One of the most important conclusions drawn from the experiment is that early childhood experiences can influence later emotional development. Of course, scaring a baby for scientific purposes is now seen as highly unethical. The Little Albert experiment has become known as much for its lack of ethical boundaries as it has for its contributions to behavioral psychology.
Henry Gustav Molaison (H.M.)
In 1955, Henry Gustav Molaison (known frequently in the literature as H.M.) had brain surgery to cure himself of debilitating epilepsy. The surgery involved removing both halves of the hippocampus. Although the operation did relieve most of his seizures, it had an unintended effect: he could no longer form short-term memories. H.M. also suffered some retrograde amnesia, losing memories for 11 years before the operation. Otherwise, his long-term memory was intact. Because the surgery was so precise, it perfectly exhibited the role of the hippocampus in memory creation. H.M. was studied for the rest of his life and, upon his death, donated his brain to science. It would not be a stretch to say that he contributed more to the study of memory than any one subject.
In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered on the street in Queens, New York. At the time, it was reported that a multitude of people saw her get killed and did nothing about it. Ever since, this event has been promoted as a prime example of the Bystander Effect: the more people that witness an event, the less likely they are to do something about it. Later investigations found that there were some discrepancies in the reporting and a couple of people at the scene may have indeed tried to report the crime. Although the basic principle of the Bystander Effect has held up over the past 50 years, the real legacy of the case is the research and activism it has inspired. The Genovese case has spurred an immense amount of psychological study across different areas, including forensic psychology and prosocial behavior. Additionally, it impacted the creation of victim services, Good Samaritan laws, and the 911 emergency call system.
Chris Costner Sizemore
You may not know the name Chris Costner Sizemore but you may have heard about her life in the movie “The Three Faces of Eve”. Sizemore’s case is one of the first and most famous involving multiple personalities, which is now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder. Until the publicity of her case, the possibility that people could have multiple personalities was, for most, a fantastical notion rather than a reality. In addition, Sizemore’s case shines a light on severe psychological consequences of early childhood trauma. Sizemore believes her different personalities developed as a way to cope with certain disturbing experiences she had when she was younger. After three of her personalities were publicized in the movie, she says she continued to experience other personalities throughout her life.
Genie was brought up in a house of extreme abuse and neglect. For most of her first 13 years, she was strapped onto a chair in a single room with almost no human interaction. When Genie was found, she possessed the development level of a one-year-old. She worked with numerous professionals and learned to develop motor skills and how to comprehend language. She also obtained a decent vocabulary, but could not catch up on her grammatical skills. It seemed Genie had missed a critical period of language development, proving you cannot learn grammatical language later in life. In addition to speech development, the case of Genie exhibits the effects of severe abuse and neglect. It also illustrates the great resiliency of human beings to overcome deprivation.
Kim Peek was the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie Rain Man. Although many people believe he was autistic, he was a non-autistic savant, with exceptional mental abilities. His memory and capacity to perform certain mathematical calculations were nothing short of astounding. An MRI exam showed that Peek was lacking the corpus callosum, the part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres. It is thought that this brain abnormality contributed to his special abilities. Despite his uniqueness, his brain was not his biggest contribution to psychology. Ironically, the misconception of his autism helped to raise the profile of the little-known disorder into the mainstream.
David Reimer (John/Joan Case)
David Reimer was born a boy but his penis was castrated by accident during a circumcision procedure. Instead of trying to reconstruct his penis, it was recommended by a doctor, John Money, that he be brought up as a girl. Money believed that gender was a choice and could override any natural inclination. As a result, when he was 17 months old, David underwent surgery and became Brenda Reimer. Despite Money’s assurances that the process was a success, David’s parents could tell that he was not happy as a girl. Eventually, when he was 14, his parents told him he was born a boy and David elected to reverse the gender reassignment process to become male again. David’s story has become a cautionary tale. He committed suicide at age 38. He spent much of his life campaigning against gender assignment surgery being forced upon children without consent. His case is one of the most high profile indications that gender identity is not a choice, attempting to undo the damage caused by John Money’s false assertions.
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Psychology | St. Johns University
Master of Arts (M.A.), Social Psychology | American University
Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), English; Psychology | Washington University in St. Louis
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