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Friend, foe, or frontal lobe?

By Don Stuss and Bob Knight


In a scene from the movie The Shadow, the evil villain Khan, the last descendant of Genghis Khan, is defeated by the Shadow who hurls a mirror shard deep into his right frontal lobe. Khan doesn’t die, but awakens in an asylum, confused as to how he got there and discovering that his powers no longer work. The doctors saved his life by removing the part of his brain that harbored his psychic abilities — his frontal lobes. Unknown to Khan, the doctor is an agent of the Shadow who has ensured that Khan is no longer a threat.

Even in “B” movies, there is a general acceptance that damage to the frontal lobes can produce dramatic changes, including remarkable alterations in personality. The most famous example of this is the well-known and publicized case of Phineas Gage. Phineas was working on building a railroad in Vermont in the mid-1800s when an accidental dynamite discharge sent a long iron tamping bar through his left cheek and into his frontal lobes. Gage lived but Harlow, who reported the case in 1868, concluded that after the accident he was “no longer Gage”. The change was so dramatic that the essence of his personality appeared to be different. This case is so striking it has been documented on the TV series “Ripley’s Believe it or not”.

The history of brain research has called the frontal lobes a mystery, this brain region a riddle. But solving such mysteries is the joy of frontal lobe researchers. If the frontal lobes are so important…

  1. Why has it taken so long for the study of the frontal lobes to permeate deeply into cognitive neuroscience research, particularly considering it represents 25-33% of the entire brain?
  2. Can an individual have a very high IQ even when the frontal lobes are significantly damaged?
  3. Why do researchers have so much difficulty understanding the role of different regions of this brain region?
  4. How can we use our knowledge of frontal lobe functioning, to help direct our rehabilitation and compensation efforts?
  5. If the frontal lobes are so developed in humans why is there so much interpersonal and societal violence?


The writer or producer of The Shadow focused on one particular region of the frontal lobes, as if they knew the importance of one region over the next. The potential localization of function within the frontal lobes has been a contentious theoretical issue for years. Glad to know that movies have solutions to our questions.

Donald T. Stuss and Robert T. Knight are the authors of Principles of Frontal Lobe Function, newly released in its second edition. Donald T. Stuss, Ph.D., C. Psych., ABPP-CN, Order of Ontario, FRSC, FCAHS, is the founding (2011) President and Scientific Director of the Ontario Brain Institute; a Senior Scientist at the Rotman Research Institute of Baycrest Centre; University of Toronto Professor of Medicine (Neurology and Rehabilitation Science) and Psychology; founding Director of the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest 1989 – 2008. Robert T. Knight, MD, received a degree in Physics from the Illinois Institute of Technology, an MD from Northwestern University Medical School, obtained Neurology training at UCSD and did post-doctoral work at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. He was a faculty member in the Department of Neurology at UC Davis School of Medicine from 1980-1998 and moved to UC Berkeley in 1998 serving as Director of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute from 2001 until 2011. He founded the UC Berkeley-UCSF Center for Neural Engineering and Prosthesis in 2010.

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