What is a Case Study? - Research & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition of a Case Study
  • 1:13 Like a Hole in the Head
  • 2:28 Memory
  • 3:38 Case Studies in Modern Science
  • 4:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Foley

Stephanie has a BA & MA iin psychology and has taught for 13 years.

Where does all the information about our health and behavior come from? Scientists do very structured forms of research. While most forms of research require many, even thousands of human subjects, case studies are the exception. They may be about one person.

Definition of a Case Study

Brain injury, brain diseases, children raised without any human contact. What happens to people who have suffered in these ways, physically, emotionally, socially? How and where have their brains been damaged? Will they improve over time?

Luckily, some of these cases do not happen often. But when they do, psychologists study them very closely and thoroughly with the hopes of learning as much as possible about the victim and hopefully about our own brains. These studies of individual cases are called case studies. Unlike surveys and experiments that can include thousands of people, case studies may only be about one person.

With all forms of research, but especially true of case studies, researchers can learn about brain structures' purposes and how to develop therapies that help mend brains and help people recover functions. We know that young people recover better than older people after brain damage. But young people under age 35 are more likely to suffer brain damage because of car crashes. Without case studies, we would not be able to intensely chart a patient's recovery in order to use these successes for future patients.

Like a Hole in the Head

Let's look at an example. Phineas Gage was a well-liked, responsible railroad worker until one day in 1848 when a 13lb solid iron bar blasted through his left check, destroying his left eye, his left frontal brain and exited through his forehead where it landed several yards away. Gage was left stunned but alive, and doctors could do little except clean him and wait.

He lived for another 12 years, but he was no longer himself. He became impatient, irresponsible, and sexually inappropriate and, as a result, he lost his job, his friends, and his common sense. For example, he would be outdoors in winter with minus-zero temperatures without a coat.

Scientists still study his case today. His skull with its forehead hole and the iron bar are preserved in a medical school museum. By using Gage's story, his case study, we've learned that brain injury can be survivable depending on which brain area is harmed, but damaging the front of the brain leads to personality, emotional, and logic problems. Researchers believe, based on Gage and other later similar case studies, that these traits are located in our frontal brains too.

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