Scientists need to pay similar attention to emotional storytelling in their presentations as they do to facts and figures.

In his book “Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain”, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio described the case of Phineas Gage, a railroad construction foreman who suffered significant brain damage in 1848 when a 6 kg iron rod pierced his skull. Remarkably, Gage survived, but his personality changed dramatically. He became impulsive, irresponsible, and unable to plan for the future.

For Damasio, this demonstrated that impaired emotional capacity (the result of damage to the brain’s frontal lobes) subsequently restricts the logical abilities of the patient. To make that point clearer, I recall a conversation with a psychiatrist a few years ago who complained that her patients with such damage were incredibly frustrating when it came to planning the next appointment; they would sit forever going through their calendars to identify a suitable new date but were unable to make a decision. Why? Because they never felt an emotional impulse that assured them that a specific day was the right decision to make.

The fateful day

Picture this: a sunny afternoon near Cavendish, Vermont. Gage, 25 years old, was leading a crew in preparing a railroad bed. Their task? Blasting away rock using explosives. But fate had other plans. As Gage wielded a hefty iron tamping rod—110 cm long and weighing 6 kgs— used to prepare dynamite charges in a hole in the rockface, the unthinkable happened. The powder detonated unexpectedly, propelling the rod through his left cheek and skull.

The iron rod entered Gage’s face, bypassing his left eye socket, penetrating the base of his skull, and slicing through the left frontal lobe. It exited through the top of his skull, landing yards away. The force threw him onto his back, convulsions wracking his limbs. Yet, within minutes, Gage stood, spoke, and walked—a living miracle.

Uncharted territory

Dr. Edward H. Williams examined Gage’s exposed brain, pulsating through the skull opening. Brain matter expelled onto the floor as Gage recounted his injuries. His physical recovery astounded all. But here’s where it gets intriguing: Gage’s personality changed. Colleagues whispered, “He’s no longer Gage.” Restless, disrespectful, unreliable—traits foreign to the Phineas they had known.

The neuroscience revelation

Gage’s case rewrote the rules. His injury revealed that the left and right cortices—those hubs of rationality and emotion—were inextricably linked. Decision-making wasn’t just about logic; it danced with feelings. The Cartesian divide crumbled. Suddenly, we understood: emotions shape choices.

The take-away for scientific presenters

Phineas Gage’s legacy is a reminder to all presenters attempting to persuade their audiences that our brains are more than data processors—they’re storytellers, weaving reason and emotion into every choice. And for scientists hoping to persuade their audiences, the case of Phineas Gage should be a heavy wake-up call to pay just as much attention to the emotional storytelling side of their presentations as they do to their facts and figures.

About the author

Jonathan Winch leverages over 25 years of international experience in sustainability, sales, and marketing to help companies create impactful narratives. He's worked with top brands like Dell Technologies and Nike, and advised the UN's SDG Accelerator program. Specializing in M&A communications, Jonathan excels in aligning technology and science with strategic storytelling to achieve meaningful business outcomes.

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