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Brain Anatomy and How the Brain Works

What is the brain.

The brain is a complex organ that controls thought, memory, emotion, touch, motor skills, vision, breathing, temperature, hunger and every process that regulates our body. Together, the brain and spinal cord that extends from it make up the central nervous system, or CNS.

What is the brain made of?

Weighing about 3 pounds in the average adult, the brain is about 60% fat. The remaining 40% is a combination of water, protein, carbohydrates and salts. The brain itself is a not a muscle. It contains blood vessels and nerves, including neurons and glial cells.

What is the gray matter and white matter?

Gray and white matter are two different regions of the central nervous system. In the brain, gray matter refers to the darker, outer portion, while white matter describes the lighter, inner section underneath. In the spinal cord, this order is reversed: The white matter is on the outside, and the gray matter sits within.

Cross sections of the brain and spinal cord, showing the grey and white matter.

Gray matter is primarily composed of neuron somas (the round central cell bodies), and white matter is mostly made of axons (the long stems that connects neurons together) wrapped in myelin (a protective coating). The different composition of neuron parts is why the two appear as separate shades on certain scans.

Parts of a nerve cell: the central soma cell body with inner nucleus and outer dendrites and long axon tail, insulated by myelin pads.

Each region serves a different role. Gray matter is primarily responsible for processing and interpreting information, while white matter transmits that information to other parts of the nervous system.

How does the brain work?

The brain sends and receives chemical and electrical signals throughout the body. Different signals control different processes, and your brain interprets each. Some make you feel tired, for example, while others make you feel pain.

Some messages are kept within the brain, while others are relayed through the spine and across the body’s vast network of nerves to distant extremities. To do this, the central nervous system relies on billions of neurons (nerve cells).

Main Parts of the Brain and Their Functions

At a high level, the brain can be divided into the cerebrum, brainstem and cerebellum.

Diagram of the brain's major parts: cerebrum, cerebellum and brainstem

The cerebrum (front of brain) comprises gray matter (the cerebral cortex) and white matter at its center. The largest part of the brain, the cerebrum initiates and coordinates movement and regulates temperature. Other areas of the cerebrum enable speech, judgment, thinking and reasoning, problem-solving, emotions and learning. Other functions relate to vision, hearing, touch and other senses.

Cerebral Cortex

Cortex is Latin for “bark,” and describes the outer gray matter covering of the cerebrum. The cortex has a large surface area due to its folds, and comprises about half of the brain’s weight.

The cerebral cortex is divided into two halves, or hemispheres. It is covered with ridges (gyri) and folds (sulci). The two halves join at a large, deep sulcus (the interhemispheric fissure, AKA the medial longitudinal fissure) that runs from the front of the head to the back. The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body, and the left half controls the right side of the body. The two halves communicate with one another through a large, C-shaped structure of white matter and nerve pathways called the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is in the center of the cerebrum.

The brainstem (middle of brain) connects the cerebrum with the spinal cord. The brainstem includes the midbrain, the pons and the medulla.

  • Midbrain. The midbrain (or mesencephalon) is a very complex structure with a range of different neuron clusters (nuclei and colliculi), neural pathways and other structures. These features facilitate various functions, from hearing and movement to calculating responses and environmental changes. The midbrain also contains the substantia nigra, an area affected by Parkinson’s disease that is rich in dopamine neurons and part of the basal ganglia, which enables movement and coordination.
  • Pons. The pons is the origin for four of the 12 cranial nerves, which enable a range of activities such as tear production, chewing, blinking, focusing vision, balance, hearing and facial expression. Named for the Latin word for “bridge,” the pons is the connection between the midbrain and the medulla.
  • Medulla. At the bottom of the brainstem, the medulla is where the brain meets the spinal cord. The medulla is essential to survival. Functions of the medulla regulate many bodily activities, including heart rhythm, breathing, blood flow, and oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. The medulla produces reflexive activities such as sneezing, vomiting, coughing and swallowing.

The spinal cord extends from the bottom of the medulla and through a large opening in the bottom of the skull. Supported by the vertebrae, the spinal cord carries messages to and from the brain and the rest of the body.

The cerebellum (“little brain”) is a fist-sized portion of the brain located at the back of the head, below the temporal and occipital lobes and above the brainstem. Like the cerebral cortex, it has two hemispheres. The outer portion contains neurons, and the inner area communicates with the cerebral cortex. Its function is to coordinate voluntary muscle movements and to maintain posture, balance and equilibrium. New studies are exploring the cerebellum’s roles in thought, emotions and social behavior, as well as its possible involvement in addiction, autism and schizophrenia.

Brain Coverings: Meninges

Three layers of protective covering called meninges surround the brain and the spinal cord.

  • The outermost layer, the dura mater , is thick and tough. It includes two layers: The periosteal layer of the dura mater lines the inner dome of the skull (cranium) and the meningeal layer is below that. Spaces between the layers allow for the passage of veins and arteries that supply blood flow to the brain.
  • The arachnoid mater is a thin, weblike layer of connective tissue that does not contain nerves or blood vessels. Below the arachnoid mater is the cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF. This fluid cushions the entire central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and continually circulates around these structures to remove impurities.
  • The pia mater is a thin membrane that hugs the surface of the brain and follows its contours. The pia mater is rich with veins and arteries.

Three layers of the meninges beneath the skull: the outer dura mater, arachnoid and inner pia mater

Lobes of the Brain and What They Control

Each brain hemisphere (parts of the cerebrum) has four sections, called lobes: frontal, parietal, temporal and occipital. Each lobe controls specific functions.

Diagram of the brain's lobes: frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital

  • Frontal lobe. The largest lobe of the brain, located in the front of the head, the frontal lobe is involved in personality characteristics, decision-making and movement. Recognition of smell usually involves parts of the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe contains Broca’s area, which is associated with speech ability.
  • Parietal lobe. The middle part of the brain, the parietal lobe helps a person identify objects and understand spatial relationships (where one’s body is compared with objects around the person). The parietal lobe is also involved in interpreting pain and touch in the body. The parietal lobe houses Wernicke’s area, which helps the brain understand spoken language.
  • Occipital lobe. The occipital lobe is the back part of the brain that is involved with vision.
  • Temporal lobe. The sides of the brain, temporal lobes are involved in short-term memory, speech, musical rhythm and some degree of smell recognition.

Deeper Structures Within the Brain

Pituitary gland.

Sometimes called the “master gland,” the pituitary gland is a pea-sized structure found deep in the brain behind the bridge of the nose. The pituitary gland governs the function of other glands in the body, regulating the flow of hormones from the thyroid, adrenals, ovaries and testicles. It receives chemical signals from the hypothalamus through its stalk and blood supply.


The hypothalamus is located above the pituitary gland and sends it chemical messages that control its function. It regulates body temperature, synchronizes sleep patterns, controls hunger and thirst and also plays a role in some aspects of memory and emotion.

Small, almond-shaped structures, an amygdala is located under each half (hemisphere) of the brain. Included in the limbic system, the amygdalae regulate emotion and memory and are associated with the brain’s reward system, stress, and the “fight or flight” response when someone perceives a threat.


A curved seahorse-shaped organ on the underside of each temporal lobe, the hippocampus is part of a larger structure called the hippocampal formation. It supports memory, learning, navigation and perception of space. It receives information from the cerebral cortex and may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease.

Pineal Gland

The pineal gland is located deep in the brain and attached by a stalk to the top of the third ventricle. The pineal gland responds to light and dark and secretes melatonin, which regulates circadian rhythms and the sleep-wake cycle.

Ventricles and Cerebrospinal Fluid

Deep in the brain are four open areas with passageways between them. They also open into the central spinal canal and the area beneath arachnoid layer of the meninges.

The ventricles manufacture cerebrospinal fluid , or CSF, a watery fluid that circulates in and around the ventricles and the spinal cord, and between the meninges. CSF surrounds and cushions the spinal cord and brain, washes out waste and impurities, and delivers nutrients.

Diagram of the brain's deeper structures

Blood Supply to the Brain

Two sets of blood vessels supply blood and oxygen to the brain: the vertebral arteries and the carotid arteries.

The external carotid arteries extend up the sides of your neck, and are where you can feel your pulse when you touch the area with your fingertips. The internal carotid arteries branch into the skull and circulate blood to the front part of the brain.

The vertebral arteries follow the spinal column into the skull, where they join together at the brainstem and form the basilar artery , which supplies blood to the rear portions of the brain.

The circle of Willis , a loop of blood vessels near the bottom of the brain that connects major arteries, circulates blood from the front of the brain to the back and helps the arterial systems communicate with one another.

Diagram of the brain's major arteries

Cranial Nerves

Inside the cranium (the dome of the skull), there are 12 nerves, called cranial nerves:

  • Cranial nerve 1: The first is the olfactory nerve, which allows for your sense of smell.
  • Cranial nerve 2: The optic nerve governs eyesight.
  • Cranial nerve 3: The oculomotor nerve controls pupil response and other motions of the eye, and branches out from the area in the brainstem where the midbrain meets the pons.
  • Cranial nerve 4: The trochlear nerve controls muscles in the eye. It emerges from the back of the midbrain part of the brainstem.
  • Cranial nerve 5: The trigeminal nerve is the largest and most complex of the cranial nerves, with both sensory and motor function. It originates from the pons and conveys sensation from the scalp, teeth, jaw, sinuses, parts of the mouth and face to the brain, allows the function of chewing muscles, and much more.
  • Cranial nerve 6: The abducens nerve innervates some of the muscles in the eye.
  • Cranial nerve 7: The facial nerve supports face movement, taste, glandular and other functions.
  • Cranial nerve 8: The vestibulocochlear nerve facilitates balance and hearing.
  • Cranial nerve 9: The glossopharyngeal nerve allows taste, ear and throat movement, and has many more functions.
  • Cranial nerve 10: The vagus nerve allows sensation around the ear and the digestive system and controls motor activity in the heart, throat and digestive system.
  • Cranial nerve 11: The accessory nerve innervates specific muscles in the head, neck and shoulder.
  • Cranial nerve 12: The hypoglossal nerve supplies motor activity to the tongue.

The first two nerves originate in the cerebrum, and the remaining 10 cranial nerves emerge from the brainstem, which has three parts: the midbrain, the pons and the medulla.

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September 9, 2021

How the brain solves problems

by Delia Du Toit, Wits University


In trying to think of an introduction for this article it occurred to me that had I been inside an MRI, the screen would have showed several brain regions lighting up like Times Square as my mind was attempting to solve the problem.

First, the prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia and thalamus would recognize that the blank page meant that there was a problem that needed to be solved. The thought that the editor might not favor this first-person account in a science article would send the limbic system , the primal part of the brain where emotions are processed, into overdrive. The amygdala, that little almond-shaped nugget at the base of the brain, would look like a Christmas tree as anxiety ticked up.

Finally, as words started filling the screen, the prefrontal cortex behind the forehead would flicker and flash. The hippocampus would access memories of previous similar articles, the information-gathering process and even school-level English classes decades ago, to help the process along. And all this activity would happen at once.

Holistic problem solving

Depending on the problem in front of you, the entire brain could be involved in trying to find a solution, says Professor Kate Cockcroft, Division Leader of cognitive neuroscience at the Neuroscience Research Laboratory (Wits NeuRL) in the School of Human and Community Development.

"You would use many different brain regions to solve a problem, especially a novel or difficult one. The idea of processes being localized in one or two parts of the brain has been replaced with newer evidence that it is the connections among brain areas and their interaction that is important in cognitive processes . Some areas may be more activated with certain problems—a visual problem would activate the visual cortices, for example.

"All this activity takes place as electrochemical signals. The signals form within neurons, pass along the branch-like axons and jump from one neuron to the next across gaps called synapses, with the help of neurotransmitter chemicals. The pattern, size, shape and number of these signals, what they communicate with, and the region of the brain in which they happen, determine what they achieve."

Although problem solving is a metacognitive—"thinking about thinking"—process, that does not make it solely the domain of the highly evolved human prefrontal cortex , adds Dr. Sahba Besharati, Division Leader of social-affective neuroscience at NeuRL.

"This is the most recently evolved part of the human brain, but problem solving does not happen in isolation—it's immersed in a social context that influences how we interpret information. Your background, gender, religion or emotions, among other factors, all influence how you interpret a problem. This means that it would involve other brain areas like the limbic system, one of the oldest brain systems housed deep within the cortex," says Besharati.

"Problem-solving abilities are not a human peculiarity. Some animals are even better than us at solving certain problems, but we all share basic problem-solving skills—if there's danger, leave; if you're hungry, find food."

None of this would be possible without memory either, says Cockcroft. "Without it, we would forget what it is that we are trying to solve and we wouldn't be able to use past experiences to help us solve it."

And memory is, again, linked to emotion. "We use this information to increase the likelihood of positive results when solving new problems," she says.

Improving your skills

It has been proven time and again that just about any brain process can be improved—including problem-solving abilities. "Brain plasticity is a real thing—the brain can reorganize itself with targeted intervention," says Besharati. "Rehabilitation from neurological injury is a dynamic process and an ever-improving science that has allowed us to understand how the brain can change and adapt in response to the environment. Studies have also shown that simple memorisation exercises can assist tremendously in retaining cognitive skills in old age."

Of course, all these processes depend on your brain recognizing that there's a problem to be dealt with in the first place—if you don't realize you're spending money foolishly, you can't improve your finances. "Recognition of a problem can happen at both a conscious and unconscious level. Stroke patients who are not aware of their motor paralysis, for example, deludedly don't believe that they are paralyzed and will sometimes not engage in rehabilitation. But their delusions often spontaneously recover, suggesting recognition at an unconscious level and that, over time, the brain can restore function."

If all else fails, there might be some value to the adage "sleep on it," says Cockcroft. "Sleep is believed to assist memory consolidation—changing memories from a fragile state in which they can easily be damaged to a permanent state. In doing so, they become stored in different brain regions and new neural connections are formed that may assist problem solving. On waking, you may have formed associations between information that you didn't think of previously. This seems to be most effective within three hours of learning new information—perhaps we should institute compulsory naps for students after lectures!"

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Parts of the Brain and Their Functions

Parts of the Brain

The human brain is the epicenter of our nervous system and plays a pivotal role in virtually every aspect of our lives. It’s a complex, highly organized organ responsible for thoughts, feelings, actions, and interactions with the world around us. Here is a look at the intricate anatomy of the brain, its functions, and the consequences of damage to different areas.

Introduction to the Brain and Its Functions

The brain is an organ of soft nervous tissue that is protected within the skull of vertebrates. It functions as the coordinating center of sensation and intellectual and nervous activity. The brain consists of billions of neurons (nerve cells) that communicate through intricate networks. The primary functions of the brain include processing sensory information, regulating bodily functions, forming thoughts and emotions, and storing memories.

Main Parts of the Brain – Anatomy

The three main parts of the brain are the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brainstem.

1. Cerebrum

  • Location: The cerebellum occupies the upper part of the cranial cavity and is the largest part of the human brain.
  • Functions: It’s responsible for higher brain functions, including thought, action, emotion, and interpretation of sensory data.
  • Effects of Damage: Depending on the area affected, damage leads to memory loss, impaired cognitive skills, changes in personality, and loss of motor control.

2. Cerebellum

  • Location: The cerebellum is at the back of the brain, below the cerebrum.
  • Functions: It coordinates voluntary movements such as posture, balance, coordination, and speech.
  • Effects of Damage: Damage causes problems with balance, movement, and muscle coordination (ataxia).

3. Brainstem

  • Location: The brainstem is lower extension of the brain, connecting to the spinal cord. It includes the midbrain, pons, and medulla oblongata.
  • Functions: This part of the brain controls many basic life-sustaining functions, including heart rate, breathing, sleeping, and eating.
  • Effects of Damage: Damage results in life-threatening conditions like breathing difficulties, heart problems, and loss of consciousness.

Lobes of the Brain

The four lobes of the brain are regions of the cerebrum:

  • Location: This is the anterior or front part of the brain.
  • Functions: Decision making, problem solving, control of purposeful behaviors, consciousness, and emotions.
  • Location: Sits behind the frontal lobe.
  • Functions: Processes sensory information it receives from the outside world, mainly relating to spatial sense and navigation (proprioception).
  • Location: Below the lateral fissure, on both cerebral hemispheres.
  • Functions: Mainly revolves around auditory perception and is also important for the processing of both speech and vision (reading).
  • Location: At the back of the brain.
  • Functions: Main center for visual processing.

Left vs. Right Brain Hemispheres

The cerebrum has two halves, called hemispheres. Each half controls functions on the opposite side of the body. So, the left hemisphere controls muscles on the right side of the body, and vice versa. But, the functions of the two hemispheres are not entirely identical:

  • Left Hemisphere: It’s dominant in language and speech and plays roles in logical thinking, analysis, and accuracy. .
  • Right Hemisphere: This hemisphere is more visual and intuitive and functions in creative and imaginative tasks.

The corpus callosum is a band of nerves that connect the two hemispheres and allow communication between them.

Detailed List of Parts of the Brain

While knowing the three key parts of the brain is a good start, the anatomy is quite a bit more complex. In addition to nervous tissues, the brain also contains key glands:

  • Cerebrum: The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain. Divided into lobes, it coordinates thought, movement, memory, senses, speech, and temperature.
  • Corpus Callosum : A broad band of nerve fibers joining the two hemispheres of the brain, facilitating interhemispheric communication.
  • Cerebellum : Coordinates movement and balance and aids in eye movement.
  • Pons : Controls voluntary actions, including swallowing, bladder function, facial expression, posture, and sleep.
  • Medulla oblongata : Regulates involuntary actions, including breathing, heart rhythm, as well as oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
  • Limbic System : Includes the amygdala, hippocampus, and parts of the thalamus and hypothalamus.
  • Amygdala: Plays a key role in emotional responses, hormonal secretions, and memory formation.
  • Hippocampus: Plays a vital role in memory formation and spatial navigation.
  • Thalamus : Acts as the brain’s relay station, channeling sensory and motor signals to the cerebral cortex, and regulating consciousness, sleep, and alertness.
  • Basal Ganglia : A group of structures involved in processing information related to movement, emotions, and reward. Key structures include the striatum, globus pallidus, substantia nigra, and subthalamic nucleus.
  • Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) : Plays a role in the reward circuit of the brain, releasing dopamine in response to stimuli indicating a reward.
  • Optic tectum : Also known as the superior colliculus, it directs eye movements.
  • Substantia Nigra : Involved in motor control and contains a large concentration of dopamine-producing neurons.
  • Cingulate Gyrus : Plays a role in processing emotions and behavior regulation. It also helps regulate autonomic motor function.
  • Olfactory Bulb : Involved in the sense of smell and the integration of olfactory information.
  • Mammillary Bodies : Plays a role in recollective memory.
  • Function: Regulates emotions, memory, and arousal.

Glands in the Brain

The hypothalamus, pineal gland, and pituitary gland are the three endocrine glands within the brain:

  • Hypothalamus : The hypothalamus links the nervous and endocrine systems. It contains many small nuclei. In addition to participating in eating and drinking, sleeping and waking, it regulates the endocrine system via the pituitary gland. It maintains the body’s homeostasis, regulating hunger, thirst, response to pain, levels of pleasure, sexual satisfaction, anger, and aggressive behavior.
  • Pituitary Gland : Known as the “master gland,” it controls various other hormone glands in the body, such as the thyroid and adrenals, as well as regulating growth, metabolism, and reproductive processes.
  • Pineal Gland : The pineal gland produces and regulates some hormones, including melatonin, which is crucial in regulating sleep patterns and circadian rhythms.

Gray Matter vs. White Matter

The brain and spinal cord consist of gray matter (substantia grisea) and white matter (substantia alba).

  • White Matter: Consists mainly of axons and myelin sheaths that send signals between different brain regions and between the brain and spinal cord.
  • Gray Matter: Consists of neuronal cell bodies, dendrites, and axon terminals. Gray matter processes information and directs stimuli for muscle control, sensory perception, decision making, and self-control.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About the Human Brain

  • The human brain contains approximately 86 billion neurons. Additionally, it has a similar or slightly higher number of non-neuronal cells (glial cells), making the total number of cells in the brain close to 170 billion.
  • There are about 86 billion neurons in the human brain. These neurons are connected by trillions of synapses, forming a complex networks.
  • The average adult human brain weighs about 1.3 to 1.4 kilograms (about 3 pounds). This weight represents about 2% of the total body weight.
  • The brain is about 73% water.
  • The myth that humans only use 10% of their brain is false. Virtually every part gets use, and most of the brain is active all the time, even during sleep.
  • The average size of the adult human brain is about 15 centimeters (6 inches) in length, 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) in width, and 9 centimeters (3.5 inches) in height.
  • Brain signal speeds vary depending on the type of neuron and the nature of the signal. They travel anywhere from 1 meter per second to over 100 meters per second in the fastest neurons.
  • With age, the brain’s volume and/or weight decrease, synaptic connections reduce, and there can be a decline in cognitive functions. However, the brain to continues adapting and forming new connections throughout life.
  • The brain has a limited ability to repair itself. Neuroplasticity aids recovery by allowing other parts of the brain to take over functions of the damaged areas.
  • The brain consumes about 20% of the body’s total energy , despite only making up about 2% of the body’s total weight . It requires a constant supply of glucose and oxygen.
  • Sleep is crucial for brain health. It aids in memory consolidation, learning, brain detoxification, and the regulation of mood and cognitive functions.
  • Douglas Fields, R. (2008). “White Matter Matters”. Scientific American . 298 (3): 54–61. doi: 10.1038/scientificamerican0308-54
  • Kandel, Eric R.; Schwartz, James Harris; Jessell, Thomas M. (2000). Principles of Neural Science (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-8385-7701-1.
  • Kolb, B.; Whishaw, I.Q. (2003). Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology (5th ed.). New York: Worth Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7167-5300-1.
  • Rajmohan, V.; Mohandas, E. (2007). “The limbic system”. Indian Journal of Psychiatry . 49 (2): 132–139. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.33264
  • Shepherd, G.M. (1994). Neurobiology . Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-508843-4.

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The Anatomy of the Brain

The brain controls your thoughts, feelings, and physical movements

Associated Conditions

The brain is a unique organ that is responsible for many functions such as problem-solving, thinking, emotions, controlling physical movements, and mediating the perception and responses related to the five senses. The many nerve cells of the brain communicate with each other to control this activity.

Each area of the brain has one or more functions. The skull, which is composed of bone, protects the brain. A number of different health conditions can affect the brain, including headaches , seizures , strokes , multiple sclerosis , and more. These conditions can often be managed with medical or surgical care.

The brain is primarily composed of nerve cells, which are also called neurons. Blood vessels supply oxygen and nutrients to the neurons of the brain. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), a fluid that provides nourishment and immune protection to the brain, flows around the brain and within the ventricular system (spaces between the regions of the brain).

The brain and the CSF are protected by the meninges, composed of three layers of connective tissue: the pia, arachnoid, and dura layers. The skull surrounds the meninges.

The brain has many important regions, such as the cerebral cortex, brainstem, and cerebellum. The areas of the brain all interact with each other through hormones and nerve stimulation.

The regions of the brain include:

  • Cerebral cortex : This is the largest portion of the brain. It includes two hemispheres (halves), which are connected to each other—physically and functionally—by the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum runs from the front of the cerebral cortex to the back of the cerebral cortex. The outer part of the cerebral cortex is often described as gray matter, and the deeper areas are often described as white matter due to their microscopic appearance.
  • Lobes of the cerebral cortex : Each hemisphere of the cerebral cortex is composed of four lobes. The frontal lobes are the largest, and they are located at the front of the brain. The temporal lobes are located on the sides of the brain, near and above the ears. The parietal lobes are at the top middle section of the brain. And the occipital lobes, which are the smallest lobes, are located in the back of the cerebral cortex.
  • Limbic system : The limbic system is located deep in the brain and is composed of several small structures, including the hippocampus, amygdala, thalamus, and hypothalamus .
  • Internal capsule : This area is located deep in the brain and is considered white matter. The frontal regions of the cerebral cortex surround the left and right internal capsules. The internal capsule is located near the lateral ventricles.
  • Thalamus : The left and right thalami are below the internal capsule, above the brainstem, and near the lateral ventricles.
  • Hypothalamus and pituitary gland : The hypothalamus is a tiny region of the brain located directly above the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is a structure that extends directly above the optic chiasm, where the optic nerves meet.
  • Brainstem : The brainstem is the lowest region of the brain and is continuous with the spinal cord. It is composed of three sections: the midbrain, pons, and medulla. The cranial nerves emerge from the brainstem.
  • Cerebellum : The cerebellum is located at the lower back of the brain, under the occipital lobe and behind the brainstem. It has two hemispheres (left and right) that are connected by a middle structure called the vermis.
  • Blood vessels : The blood vessels that supply your brain include the anterior cerebral arteries , middle cerebral arteries , posterior cerebral arteries, basilar artery , and vertebral arteries . These blood vessels and the blood vessels that connect them to each other compose a collection of blood vessels described as the circle of Willis .
  • Ventricular system : CSF flows in the right and left lateral ventricles, the third ventricle, the cerebral aqueduct, the fourth ventricle, and down into the central canal in the spinal cord.

The brain has a number of functions, including motor function (controlling the body’s movements), coordination, sensory functions (being aware of sensations), hormone control, regulation of the heart and lungs, emotions, memory, behavior, and creativity.

These functions often rely on and interact with each other. For example, you might experience an emotion based on something that you see and/or hear. Or you might try to solve a problem with the help of your memory. Messages travel very quickly between the different regions in the brain, which makes the interactions almost instantaneous.

Functions of the brain include:

  • Motor function : Motor function is initiated in an area at the back of the frontal lobe called the motor homunculus. This region controls movement on the opposite side of the body by sending messages through the internal capsule to the brainstem, then to the spinal cord, and finally to a spinal nerve through a pathway described as the corticospinal tract.
  • Coordination and balance : Your body maintains balance and coordination through a number of pathways in the cerebral cortex, cerebellum, and brainstem.
  • Sensation : The brain receives sensory messages through a pathway that travels from the nerves in the skin and organs to the spine, then to the brainstem, up through the thalamus, and finally to an area of the parietal lobe called the sensory homunculus, which is directly behind the motor homunculus. Each hemisphere receives sensory input from the opposite side of the body. This pathway is called the spinothalamic tract.
  • Vision : Your optic nerves in your eyes can detect whatever you see, sending messages through your optic tract (pathway) to your occipital lobes. The occipital lobes put those messages together so that you can perceive what you are seeing in the world around you.
  • Taste and smell : Your olfactory nerve detects smell, while several of your cranial nerves work together to detect taste. These nerves send messages to your brain. The sensations of smell and taste often interact, as smell amplifies your experience of taste.
  • Hearing : You can detect sounds when a series of vibrations in your ear stimulate your vestibulocochlear nerve. The message is sent to your brainstem and then to your temporal cortex so that you can make sense of the sounds that you hear.
  • Language : Speaking and understanding language is a specialized brain function that involves several regions of your dominant hemisphere (the side of the brain opposite your dominant hand). The two major areas that control speech are Wernicke’s area , which controls the understanding of speech, and Broca’s area, which controls the fluency of your speech.
  • Emotions and memory : Your amygdala and hippocampus play important roles in storing memory and associating certain memories with emotion.
  • Hormones : Your hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and medulla all respond to the conditions of your body, such as your temperature, carbon dioxide level, and hormone levels, by releasing hormones and other chemicals that help regulate your body’s functions. Emotions such as fear can also have an influence on these functions.
  • Behavior and judgment : The frontal lobes control reasoning, planning, and maintaining social interactions. This area of the brain is also involved in judgment and maintaining appropriate behavior.
  • Analytical thinking : Mathematical problem solving is located in the dominant hemisphere. Often, this type of reasoning involves interaction with the decision-making regions of the frontal lobes.
  • Creativity : There are many types of creativity, including the production of visual art, music, and creative writing. These skills can involve three-dimensional thinking, also described as visual-spatial skills. Creativity also involves analytical reasoning and usually requires a balance between traditional ways of thinking (which occurs in the frontal lobes) and "thinking outside the box."

There are many conditions that can affect the brain. You may experience self-limited issues, such as the pain of a headache, or more lasting effects of brain disease, such as paralysis due to a stroke. The diagnosis of brain illnesses may be complex and can involve a variety of medical examinations and tests, including a physical examination, imaging tests, neuropsychological testing, electroencephalography (EEG) , and/or lumbar puncture .

Common conditions that involve the brain include:

  • Headaches : Head pain can occur due to chronic migraines or tension headaches. You can also have a headache when you feel sleepy, stressed, or due to an infection like meningitis (an infection of the meninges).
  • Traumatic brain injury : An injury to the head can cause damage such as bleeding in the brain, a skull fracture, a bruise in the brain, or, in severe cases, death. These injuries may cause vision loss, paralysis, or severe cognitive (thinking) problems.
  • Concussion : Head trauma can cause issues like loss of consciousness, memory impairment, and mood changes. These problems may develop even in the absence of bleeding or a skull fracture. Often, symptoms of a concussion resolve over time, but recurrent head trauma can cause serious and persistent problems with brain function, described as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA) : A temporary interruption in the blood supply to the brain can cause the affected areas to temporarily lose function. This can happen due to a blood clot, usually coming from the heart or carotid arteries. If the interruption in blood flow resolves before permanent brain damage occurs, this is called a TIA . Generally, a TIA is considered a warning that a person is at risk of having a stroke, so a search for stroke causes is usually necessary—and stroke prevention often needs to be initiated.
  • Stroke : A stroke is brain damage that occurs due to an interruption of blood flow to the brain. This can occur due to a blood clot (ischemic stroke) or a bleed in the brain (hemorrhagic stroke) . There are a number of causes of ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke, including heart disease, hypertension, and brain aneurysms.
  • Brain aneurysm : An aneurysm is an outpouching of a blood vessel. A brain aneurysm can cause symptoms due to pressure on nearby structures. An aneurysm can also bleed or rupture, causing a hemorrhage in the brain. Sometimes an aneurysm can be surgically repaired before it ruptures, preventing serious consequences.
  • Dementia : Degenerative disease of the regions in the brain that control memory and behavior can cause a loss of independence. This can occur in several conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease , Lewy body dementia, Pick’s disease, and vascular dementia (caused by having many small strokes).
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS) : This is a condition characterized by demyelination (loss of the protective fatty coating around nerves) in the brain and spine. MS can cause a variety of effects, such as vision loss, muscle weakness, and sensory changes. The disease course can be characterized by exacerbations and remissions, a progressive decline, or a combination of these processes.
  • Parkinson’s disease : This condition is a progressive movement disorder that causes tremors of the body (especially the arms), stiffness of movements, and a slow, shuffling pattern of walking. There are treatments for this condition, but it is not curable.
  • Epilepsy : Recurrent seizures can occur due to brain damage or congenital (from birth) epilepsy. These episodes may involve involuntary movements, diminished consciousness, or both. Seizures usually last for a few seconds at a time, but prolonged seizures (status epilepticus) can occur as well. Anti-epileptic medications can help prevent seizures, and some emergency anti-epileptic medications can be used to stop a seizure while it is happening.
  • Meningitis or encephalitis : An infection or inflammation of the meninges (meningitis) or the brain (encephalitis) can cause symptoms such as fever, stiff neck, headache, or seizures. With treatment, meningitis usually improves without lasting effects, but encephalitis can cause brain damage, with long-term neurological impairment.
  • Brain tumors : A primary brain tumor starts in the brain, and brain tumors from the body can metastasize (spread) to the brain as well. These tumors can cause symptoms that correlate to the affected area of the brain. Brain tumors also may cause swelling in the brain and hydrocephalus (a disruption of the CSF flow in the ventricular system). Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.

If you have a condition that could be affecting your brain, there are a number of complex tests that your medical team may use to identify the problem. Most important, a physical exam and mental status examination can determine whether there is any impairment of brain function and pinpoint the deficits. For example, you may have weakness of one part of the body, vision loss, trouble walking, personality or memory changes, or a combination of these issues. Other signs, such as rash or fever, which are not part of the neurological physical examination, can also help identify systemic issues that could be causing your symptoms.

Diagnostic tests include brain imaging tests such as computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). These tests can identify structural and functional abnormalities. And sometimes, tests such as CT angiography (CTA), MRI angiography (MRA), or interventional cerebral angiography are needed to visualize the blood vessels in the brain.

Another test, an evoked potential test, can be used to identify hearing or vision problems in some circumstances. And a lumbar puncture may be used to evaluate the CSF surrounding the brain. This test can detect evidence of infection, inflammation, or cancer. Rarely, a brain biopsy is used to sample a tiny area of the brain to assess the abnormalities.

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Calso C, Besnard J, Allain P. Frontal lobe functions in normal aging: Metacognition, autonomy, and quality of life . Exp Aging Res . 2019;45(1):10-27. doi:10.1080/0361073X.2018.1560105

Ferry B, DeCastro A. Concussion . StatPearls.

Panuganti KK, Tadi P, Lui F. Transient ischemic attack . StatPearls.

Párraga RG, Possatti LL, Alves RV, Ribas GC, Türe U, de Oliveira E. Microsurgical anatomy and internal architecture of the brainstem in 3D images: surgical considerations . J Neurosurg . 2016;124(5):1377-95. doi:10.3171/2015.4.JNS132778

Talo M, Yildirim O, Baloglu UB, Aydin G, Acharya UR. Convolutional neural networks for multi-class brain disease detection using MRI images . Comput Med Imaging Graph . 2019;10:101673. doi:10.1016/j.compmedimag.2019.101673

By Heidi Moawad, MD Dr. Moawad is a neurologist and expert in brain health. She regularly writes and edits health content for medical books and publications.

January 25, 2008

What Are We Thinking When We (Try to) Solve Problems?

New research indicates what happens in the brain when we're faced with a dilemma

By Nikhil Swaminathan

Aha! Eureka! Bingo! "By George, I think she's got it!" Everyone knows what it's like to finally figure out a seemingly impossible problem. But what on Earth is happening in the brain while we're driving toward mental pay dirt ? Researchers eager to find out have long been on the hunt, knowing that such information could one day provide priceless clues in uncovering and fixing faulty neural systems believed to be behind some mental illnesses and learning disabilities.

Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London report in the journal PLoS ONE that they monitored action in the brains of 21 volunteers with electroencephalography (EEG) as they tackled verbal problems in an attempt to uncover what goes through the mind—literally—in order to observe what happens in the brain during an "aha!" moment of problem solving.

"This insight is at the core of human intelligence … this is a key cognitive function that the human can boast to have," says Joydeep Bhattacharya, an assistant professor in Goldsmiths's psychology department. "We're interested [in finding out] whether—there is a sudden change that takes place or something that changes gradually [that] we're not consciously aware of," he says. The researchers believed they could pin down brain signals that would enable them to predict whether a person could solve a particular problem or not.

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In many cases, the subjects hit a wall, or what researchers refer to as a "mental impasse." If the participants arrived at this point, they could press a button for a clue to help them untangle a problem. Bhattacharya says blocks correlated with strong gamma rhythms (a pattern of brain wave activity associated with selective attention) in the parietal cortex, a region in the upper rear of the brain that has been implicated in integrating information coming from the senses. The research team noticed an interesting phenomenon taking place in the brains of participants given hints: The clues were less likely to help if subjects had an especially high gamma rhythm pattern. The reason, Bhattacharya speculates, is that these participants were, in essence, locked into an inflexible way of thinking and less able to free their minds, and thereby unable to restructure the problem before them.

"If there's excessive attention, it somehow creates mental fixation," he notes. "Your brain is not in a receptive condition."

At the end of each trial, subjects reported whether or not they had a strong "Aha!" moment. Interestingly, researchers found that subjects who were aware that they had found a new way to tackle the problem (and so, had consciously restructured their thinking) were less likely to feel as if they'd had eureka moment compared to more clueless candidates.

"People experience the "Aha!" feeling when they are not consciously monitoring what they are thinking," Bhattacharya says, adding that the sentiment is more of an emotional experience he likens to relief. "If you're applying your conscious brain information processing ability, then you're alpha." (Alpha brain rhythms are associated with a relaxed and open mind; volunteers who unwittingly solved problems showed more robust alpha rhythms than those who knowingly adjusted their thinking to come up with the answer.)

He says the findings indicate that it's better to tackle problems with an open mind than by concentrating too hard on them. In the future, Bhattacharya says, his team will attempt to predict in real-time whether a stumped subject will be able to solve a vexing problem and, also, whether they can manipulate brain rhythms to aid in finding a solution.

The second probe into problem-solving focused on the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a region in the front of the brain tied to functions such as decision making, conflict monitoring and reward feedback. A team at the University of Lyon's Stem Cell and Brain Research Institute in Bron, France reports in Neuron that it verified that the ACC helps detect errors during problem solving (as previously discovered), but also that it does so by acting more as a general guide, monitoring and scoring the steps involved in problem solving, pointing out miscalculations as well as success.

The team discovered this by recording electrical activity in the brains of two male rhesus monkeys as they tried to determine which targets on a screen would result in a tasty drink of juice. "When you're trying to solve a problem, you need to search; when you discover the solution, you need to stop searching," says study co-author Emmanuel Procyk, coordinator of the Institute's Department of Integrative Neurobiology. "We need brain areas to do that."

He says that researchers observed increased neuronal activity in the animals' ACCs when they began searching. When the monkeys hit the jackpot, there was still heightened activity in the ACC (though only a selective population of nerve cells remained hopped up), indicating that the region is responsible for more than simply alerting the rest of the brain when errors are made. Once the monkeys got the hang of it—and routinely pressed the correct target—ACC activity slowed.

"What we think based on this experiment and other experiments," Procyk says, "is that this structure is very important in valuing things." It essentially scores each of the monkey's behaviors as successful or not successful. "It is an area," he adds, "that will help to decide when to shift from the functioning that goes on when [the brain is] learning to when the learning [is] done."

Procyk says that if this system is compromised, it could have implications for issues such as drug dependency. If the ACC is functioning abnormally, he says, it could overvalue drugs, leading to addiction. (Other studies have shown that an impaired cingulate cortex can result in maladaptive social behavior and disrupted cognitive abilities.)

Alas, the ultimate "Aha!" moment for researchers probing problem solving is likely is far off, but at least the latest research may help them avoid an impasse.

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Physiology, brain.

Kenia A. Maldonado ; Khalid Alsayouri .


Last Update: March 17, 2023 .

  • Introduction

The human brain is perhaps the most complex of all biological systems, with the mature brain composed of more than 100 billion information-processing cells called neurons. [1]  The brain is an organ composed of nervous tissue that commands task-evoked responses, movement, senses, emotions, language, communication, thinking, and memory. The three main parts of the human brain are the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brainstem. 

The cerebrum is divided into the right and left hemispheres and is the largest part of the brain. It contains folds and convolutions on its surface, with the ridges found between the convolutions called gyri and the valleys between the gyri called sulci (plural of sulcus). If the sulci are deep, they are called fissures. Both cerebral hemispheres have an outer layer of gray matter called the cerebral cortex and inner subcortical white matter.

Located in the posterior cranial fossa, above the foramen magnum, the cerebellum's primary function is to modulate motor coordination, posture, and balance. It is comprised of the cerebellar cortex and deep cerebellar nuclei, with the cerebellar cortex being made up of three layers; the molecular, Purkinje, and granular layers. The cerebellum connects to the brainstem via cerebellar peduncles.

The brainstem contains the midbrain, pons, and medulla. It is located anterior to the cerebellum, between the base of the cerebrum and the spinal cord.

  • Issues of Concern

Studies of brain function have focused on analyzing the variations of the electrical activity produced by the application of sensory stimuli. However, it is also essential to study additional features and functions of the brain, including information processing and responding to environmental demands. [2]

The brain works precisely, making connections, and is a deeply divided structure that has remained not entirely explained or examined. [3]  Although researchers have made significant progress in experimental techniques, the human cognitive function that emerges from neuronal structure and dynamics is not entirely understood. [4]

  • Cellular Level

At the beginning of the forebrain formation, the neuroepithelial cells undergo divisions at the inner surface of the neural tube to generate new progenitors. These dividing neuroepithelial cells transform and diversify, leading to radial glial cells (RGCs).

RGCs also work as progenitors with the capacity to regenerate themselves and produce other types of progenitors, neurons, and glial cells. [5]  RGCs have long processes that connect with the neuroepithelium and function as a guide for the migration of neuron cells to ensure that neurons find their resting place, mature, and send out axons and dendrites to participate directly in synapses and electrical signaling. Neurons get produced along with glial cells; glial cells bring support and create an enclosed environment in which neurons can perform their functions.

Glial cells (astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, microglial cells) have well-known roles, which include: keeping the ionic medium of neurons, controlling the rate of nerve signal propagation and synaptic action by regulating the uptake of neurotransmitters, providing a platform for some aspects of neural development, and aiding in recovery from neural damage.

Gray matter is the main component of the central nervous system (CNS) and consists of neuronal cell bodies, dendrites, myelinated and unmyelinated axons, glial cells, synapses, and capillaries. The cerebral cortex is made up of layers of neurons that constitute the gray matter of the brain. The subcortical (beneath the cortex) area is primarily white matter composed of myelinated axons with fewer quantities of cell bodies when compared to gray matter.

Although neurons can have different morphologies, they all contain four common regions: the cell body, the dendrites, the axon, and the axon terminals, each with its respective functions.

The cell body contains a nucleus where proteins and membranes are synthesized. These proteins travel through microtubules down to the axons and terminals via a mechanism known as anterograde transport. In retrograde transport, damaged membranes and organelles travel from the axon toward the cell body along axonal microtubules. Lysosomes are only present in the cell body and are responsible for containing and degrading damaged material. The axon is a thin continuation of a neuron that allows electrical impulses to be sent from neuron to neuron.

Astrocytes occupy 25% of the total brain volume and are the most abundant glial cells. [6]  They are classified into two main groups: protoplasmic and fibrous. Protoplasmic astrocytes appear in gray matter and have several branches that contact both synapses and blood vessels. Fibrous astrocytes are present in the white matter and have long fiber-like processes that contact the nodes of Ranvier and the blood vessels. Astrocytes use their connections to vessels to titrate blood flow in synaptic activity responses. Astrocytic endfeet, which forms tight junctions between endothelial cells and the basal lamina, gives rise to the formation of the blood-brain barrier (BBB). [7]

The primary function of oligodendrocytes is to make myelin, a proteolipid critical in maintaining electrical impulse conduction and maximizing velocity. Myelin is located in segments separated by nodes of Ranvier, and their function is equivalent to those of Schwan cells in the peripheral nervous system.

The macrophage populations of the CNS include microglia, perivascular macrophages, meningeal macrophages, macrophages of the circumventricular organs (CVO), and the microglia of the choroid plexus. Microglia are phagocytic cells representing the immune and support system of the CNS and are the most abundant cells of the choroid plexus. [8]

  • Development

Human brain development starts with the neurulation process from the ectodermic layer of the embryo and takes, on average, 20 to 25 years to mature. [9]  It occurs in a sequential and organized manner beginning with the neural tube formation at the third or fourth week of gestation. This is followed by cell migration and proliferation that leads to the folding of the cerebral cortex to increase its size and surface area, creating a more complex structure. Failure of this migration and proliferation leads to a smooth brain without sulci or gyri, termed lissencephaly. [10] At birth, the general architecture of the brain is mostly complete, and by the age of 5 years, the total brain volume is about 95% of its adult size. Generally, the white matter increases with age, while the gray matter decreases with age.

The most prominent white matter structure of the brain, the corpus callosum, increases by approximately 1.8% per year between the ages of 3 and 18 years. [11]  The corpus callosum conjugates the activity of the right and left hemispheres and allows for the progress of higher-order cognitive abilities.

Gray matter in the frontal lobe undergoes continued structural development reaching its maximal volume at 11 to 12 years of age before slowing down during adolescence and early adulthood. The gray matter in the temporal lobe follows a similar development pattern, reaching its maximum size at 16 to 17 years of age with a slight decline afterward. [12]

Below is a list of the brain vesicles and the areas of the brain which develop from them. [13]

Prosencephalon (Forebrain)

  • Cerebral cortex
  • Basal ganglia (caudate nucleus, putamen, and globus pallidus)
  • Hippocampus
  • Lateral ventricles
  • Hypothalamus
  • Epithalamus (pineal gland)
  • Subthalamus
  • Posterior pituitary
  • Optic nerve
  • Third ventricle

Mesencephalon (midbrain)

  • Cerebral aqueduct

Rhombencephalon (hindbrain)

  • Fourth ventricle (rostral)
  • Fourth ventricle (caudal)
  • Organ Systems Involved

The brain and the spinal cord comprise the central nervous system (CNS). The peripheral nervous system (PNS) subdivides into the somatic nervous system (SNS) and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The SNS consists of peripheral nerve fibers that collect sensory information to the CNS and motor fibers that send information from the CNS to skeletal muscle. The ANS functions to control the smooth muscle of the viscera and glands and consists of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the parasympathetic nervous system (PaNS), and the enteric nervous system (ENS).

Nerves from the brain connect with multiple parts of the head and body, leading to various voluntary and involuntary functions. The ANS drives basic functions that control unconscious activities such as breathing, digestion, sweating, and trembling.

The ENS provides the intrinsic innervation of the gastrointestinal system and is the most neurochemically diverse branch of the PNS. [14]  Neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin have recently been a topic of interest due to their roles in gut physiology and CNS pathophysiology, as they aid in regulating gut blood flow, motility, and absorption. [15]

The cerebrum controls motor and sensory information, conscious and unconscious behaviors, feelings, intelligence, and memory. The left hemisphere controls speech and abstract thinking (the ability to think about things that are not present). In contrast, the right hemisphere controls spatial thinking (thinking that finds meaning in the shape, size, orientation, location, and phenomena).

The motor and sensory neurons descending from the brain cross to the opposite side in the brainstem. This crossing means that the right side of the brain controls the motor and sensory functions of the left side of the body, and the left side of the brain controls the motor and sensory functions of the right side of the body. Hence, a stroke affecting the left brain hemisphere, for example, will exhibit motor and sensory deficits on the right side of the body.

Sensory neurons bring sensory input from the body to the thalamus, which then relays this sensory information to the cerebrum. For example, hunger, thirst, and sleep are under the control of the hypothalamus.

The cerebrum is composed of four lobes:

  • Frontal lobe: Responsible for motor function, language, and cognitive processes, such as executive function, attention, memory, affect, mood, personality, self-awareness, and social and moral reasoning. [16]  The Broca area is located in the left frontal lobe and is responsible for the production and articulation of speech.
  • Parietal lobe: Responsible for interpreting vision, hearing, motor, sensory, and memory functions. 
  • Temporal lobe: In the left temporal lobe, the Wernicke area is responsible for understanding spoken and written language. The temporal lobe is also an essential part of the social brain, as it processes sensory information to retain memories, language, and emotions. [17]  The temporal lobe also plays a significant role in hearing and spatial and visual perception.
  • Occipital lobe: The visual cortex is located in the occipital lobe and is responsible for interpreting visual information.

The cerebellum controls the coordination of voluntary movement and receives sensory information from the brain and spinal cord to fine-tune the precision and accuracy of motor activity. The cerebellum also aids in various cognitive functions such as attention, language, pleasure response, and fear memory. [18]

The brainstem acts as a bridge that connects the cerebrum and cerebellum to the spinal cord. The brainstem houses the principal centers which perform autonomic functions such as breathing, temperature regulation, respiration, heart rate, wake-sleep cycles, coughing, sneezing, digestion, vomiting, and swallowing. The brainstem contains both white and gray matter. The white matter consists of fiber tracts (neuronal cell axons) traveling down from the cerebral cortex for voluntary motor function and up from the spinal cord and peripheral nerves, allowing somatosensory information to travel to the highest parts of the brain. [19]

The brain represents 2% of the human body weight and consumes 15% of the cardiac output and 20% of total body oxygen. The resting brain consumes 20% of the body's energy supply. When the brain performs a task, the energy consumption increases by an additional 5%, proving that most of the brain's energy consumption gets used for intrinsic functions.

The brain uses glucose as its principal source of energy. During low glucose states, the brain utilizes ketone bodies as its primary energy source. During exercise, the brain can use lactate as a source of energy.

In the developing brain, neurons follow molecular signals from regulatory cells like astrocytes to determine their location, the type of neurotransmitter they will secrete, and with which neurons they will communicate, leading to the formation of a circuit between neurons that will be in place during adulthood. In the adult brain, developed neurons fit in their corresponding place and develop axons and dendrites to connect with the neighboring neurons. [20]

Neurons communicate via neurotransmitters released into the synaptic space, a 20 to 50-nanometer area between neurons. The neuron that releases the neurotransmitter into the synaptic space is called the presynaptic neuron, and the neuron that receives the neurotransmitter is called the postsynaptic neuron. An action potential in the presynaptic neuron leads to calcium influx and the subsequent release of neurotransmitters from their storage vesicle into the synaptic space. The neurotransmitter then travels to the postsynaptic neuron and binds to receptors to influence its activity. Neurotransmitters are rapidly removed from the synaptic space by enzymes. [21]

The oligodendrocytes in the CNS produce myelin. Myelin forms insulating sheaths around axons to allow the swift travel of electrical impulses through the axons. The nodes of Ranvier are gaps in the myelin sheath of axons, allowing sodium influx into the axon to help maintain the speed of the electrical impulse traveling through the axon. This transmission is called saltatory nerve conduction, the "jumping" of electrical impulses from one node to another. It ensures that electrical signals do not lose their velocity and can propagate long distances without signal deterioration. [22]

  • Related Testing

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can track the effects of neural activity and the energy that the brain consumes by measuring components of the metabolic chain. Other techniques, such as single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), study cerebral blood flow and neuroreceptors. Positron emission tomography (PET) assesses the glucose metabolism of the brain. [23]  Electroencephalography (EEG) records the brain's electrical activity and is very useful for detecting various brain disorders. Advancements in these techniques have enabled a broader vision and objective perceptions of mental disorders, leading to improved diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis.

  • Pathophysiology

Injury to the brain stimulates the proliferation of astrocytes, an immunological response to neurodegenerative disorders called "reactive gliosis." [24]  Damage to neural tissue promotes molecular and morphological changes and is essential in the upregulation of the glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP). On the other hand, epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) allows the transition from non-reactive to reactive astrocytes, and its inhibition improves axonal regeneration and rapid recovery. This means that when astrocytes are reactive, they proliferate and hypertrophy, leading to glial scar formation.

The microglia represent the immune and support system of the CNS. They are neuroprotective in the young brain but can react abnormally to stimuli in the aged brain and become neurotoxic and destructive, leading to neurodegeneration. [25]  As the brain ages, microglia acquire an increasingly inflammatory and cytotoxic phenotype, generating a hazardous environment for neurons. [26]  Hence, aging is the most critical risk factor for developing neurodegenerative diseases.

The brain is surrounded by cerebrospinal fluid and is isolated from the bloodstream by the blood-brain barrier (BBB). In cases like infectious meningitis and meningoencephalitis, acute inflammation causes a breakdown of the BBB, leading to the influx of blood-borne immune cells into the CNS. In other inflammatory brain disorders such as Alzheimer disease (AD), Parkinson disease (PD), Huntington disease (HD), or X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy, the primary insult is due to degenerative or metabolic processes, and there is no breakdown of the BBB. [27]

Oligodendrocyte loss can occur due to the production of reactive oxygen species or the activation of inflammatory cytokines, causing decreased myelin production and leading to conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS). [22]

Disturbances in the neurotransmitter systems are related to these substances' production, release, reuptake, or receptor impairments and can cause neurologic or psychiatric disorders. Glutamate is the brain's most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter, while GABA is the primary inhibitory transmitter. Glycine has a similar inhibitory action in the posterior parts of the brain. Acetylcholine aids in processes such as muscle stimulation at the neuromuscular junction (NMJ), digestion, arousal, salivation, and level of attention. Dopamine is involved in the reward and motivational component, motor control, and the regulation of prolactin release. Serotonin influences mood, feelings of happiness, and anxiety. Norepinephrine is involved in arousal, alertness, vigilance, and attention. 

Cerebral oxygen delivery and consumption rates are ten times higher than global body values. [28]  Blood glucose represents the primary energy source for the brain, and the BBB is highly permeable to it. During low glucose states, the body has developed multiple ways to keep blood glucose within the normal range. As the level drops below 80 mg/dL, pancreatic beta-cells decrease insulin secretion to avoid further glucose decrease. If glucose drops further, pancreatic alpha-cells secrete glucagon, and the adrenal medulla releases epinephrine. Glucagon and epinephrine increase blood glucose levels. Cortisol and growth hormone also act to increase glucose, but they depend on the presence of glucagon and epinephrine to work.

  • Clinical Significance

Damage to the Cerebrum

  • Frontal lobe -  Damage to the frontal lobe causes interruption of the higher functioning brain processes, including social behavior, planning, motivation, and speech production. Individuals with frontal lobe damage may be unable to regulate their emotions, have meaningful or appropriate social interactions, maintain their past personality traits, or make difficult decisions. [29]
  • Temporal lobe - The Wernicke area is located in the superior temporal gyrus in an individual's dominant hemisphere, which is the left hemisphere for 95% of people. Damage to the left (dominant) temporal lobe can lead to Wernicke aphasia. This is typically referred to as "word salad" speech, where the patient will speak fluently, but their words and sentences will lack meaning. [30]  Damage to the right (non-dominant) temporal lobe may lead to persistent talking and deficits in nonverbal memory, processing certain aspects of sound or music (tone, rhythm, pitch), and facial recognition (prosopagnosia).
  • Parietal lobe -  Damage to the frontal aspect of the parietal lobe may lead to impaired sensation and numbness on the contralateral side of the body. An individual may have difficulty recognizing texture and shape and may be unable to identify a sensation and its location on their body. Damage to the middle aspect of the parietal lobe can lead to right-left disorientation and difficulty with proprioception. Damage to the non-dominant (right) parietal lobe may lead to apraxia (difficulty with performing purposeful motions such as combing hair or brushing teeth) and difficulty with spatial orientation and navigation (they may get lost in a once familiar area). Patients with non-dominant parietal lobe damage, usually from a middle cerebral artery stroke, may neglect the side opposite of the brain damage (usually the left side), which may manifest as only shaving the right side of their face or drawing a clock with all of the numbers on the right side of the circle. [31]
  • Occipital lobe -  Damage to the occipital lobe may lead to visual defects, color agnosia (inability to identify colors), movement agnosia (difficulty recognizing object movements), hallucinations, illusions, and the inability to recognize written words (word blindness). 

Damage to the Cerebellum

Damage to the cerebellum can lead to ataxia, dysmetria, dysarthria, scanning speech, dysdiadochokinesis, tremor, nystagmus, and hypotonia. To test for possible cerebellar dysfunction, a bedside neurologic exam is commonly the first step. This exam may include the Romberg test, heel-to-shin test, finger-to-nose test, and rapid alternating movement test. [32]

Damage to the Brainstem

Damage to the brainstem may present as muscle weakness, visual changes, dysphagia, vertigo, speech impairment, pupil abnormalities, insomnia, respiratory depression, or death.

Neurodegenerative Diseases

Neuronal degeneration worsens with age and can affect different areas of the brain leading to movement, memory, and cognition problems.

Parkinson disease (PD) occurs due to the degeneration of the neurons that synthesize dopamine, leading to motor function deficits. Alzheimer disease (AD) occurs due to abnormally folded protein deposition in the brain leading to neuronal degeneration. Huntington disease occurs due to a genetic mutation that increases the production of the neurotransmitter glutamate. Excessive amounts of glutamate lead to the death of neurons in the basal ganglia producing movement, cognitive, and psychiatric deficits. Vascular dementia occurs due to the death of neurons resulting from the interruption of blood supply.

Although neurodegenerative diseases are not classically caused by disturbed metabolism, research has shown that there is a reduction in glucose metabolism in Alzheimer disease. [33]

Demyelinating Diseases

Demyelinating diseases result from damage to the myelin sheath that covers the nerve cells in the white matter of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. For example, multiple sclerosis and leukodystrophies are a consequence of oligodendrocyte damage.

A stroke is caused by an interruption in the blood supply to the brain, which may ultimately lead to neuronal death. This condition can result in one of several neurological problems depending on the affected region.

Brain Death

Neurologic evaluation of brain death is a complicated process that non-specialists and families might misunderstand. [34]  Brain death is the complete and irreversible loss of brain activity, including the brainstem. It requires verification through well-established clinical protocols and the support of specialized tests.


Glucose is the primary energy source responsible for maintaining brain metabolism and function. The most significant amount of glucose is used for information processing by neurons. [35]  The brain requires a continuous supply of glucose as it has limited glucose reserves. CNS symptoms and signs of hypoglycemia include focal neurological deficits, confusion, stupor, seizure, cognitive impairment, or death.

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Brain, Encephalon, Connections of the several parts of the brain, Cerebrum, Cerebellum, Pons, Cerebral; Superior; Middle; Inferior Peduncle, Medulla oblongata Henry Vandyke Carter, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Fore-brain or Prosencephalon, Mesal aspect of a brain sectioned in the median sagittal plane, Foramen of Monro, Middle commissure, Taenia thalami, Habenular commissure, Genu, Callosum, Fornix, Septum Lucidum, Plenum, Pons, Oblongata, Thalamus Henry (more...)

Areas of localization on lateral surface of hemisphere. Motor area in red, Area of general sensations in blue, Auditory area in green, Visual area in yellow, Brain, Neurology Henry Vandyke Carter, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pathways from the Brain to the Spinal Cord, The motor tract, Anterior nerve roots, Anterior and Lateral cerebrospinal Fasciculus, Decussation of pyramids, Geniculate fibers, Internal capsule, Motor area of cortex Henry Vandyke Carter, Public Domain, via (more...)

Homonculus: sensory & motor Image courtesy S. Bhimji MD

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  • Cite this Page Maldonado KA, Alsayouri K. Physiology, Brain. [Updated 2023 Mar 17]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-.

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8.2 Parts of the Brain Involved with Memory

Learning objectives.

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain the brain functions involved in memory
  • Recognize the roles of the hippocampus, amygdala, and cerebellum

Are memories stored in just one part of the brain, or are they stored in many different parts of the brain? Karl Lashley began exploring this problem, about 100 years ago, by making lesions in the brains of animals such as rats and monkeys. He was searching for evidence of the engram : the group of neurons that serve as the “physical representation of memory” (Josselyn, 2010). First, Lashley (1950) trained rats to find their way through a maze. Then, he used the tools available at the time—in this case a soldering iron—to create lesions in the rats’ brains, specifically in the cerebral cortex. He did this because he was trying to erase the engram, or the original memory trace that the rats had of the maze.

Lashley did not find evidence of the engram, and the rats were still able to find their way through the maze, regardless of the size or location of the lesion. Based on his creation of lesions and the animals’ reaction, he formulated the equipotentiality hypothesis : if part of one area of the brain involved in memory is damaged, another part of the same area can take over that memory function (Lashley, 1950). Although Lashley’s early work did not confirm the existence of the engram, modern psychologists are making progress locating it. For example, Eric Kandel has spent decades studying the synapse and its role in controlling the flow of information through neural circuits needed to store memories (Mayford, Siegelbaum, & Kandel, 2012).

Many scientists believe that the entire brain is involved with memory. However, since Lashley’s research, other scientists have been able to look more closely at the brain and memory. They have argued that memory is located in specific parts of the brain, and specific neurons can be recognized for their involvement in forming memories. The main parts of the brain involved with memory are the amygdala, the hippocampus, the cerebellum, and the prefrontal cortex ( Figure 8.8 ).

The Amygdala

First, let’s look at the role of the amygdala in memory formation. The main job of the amygdala is to regulate emotions, such as fear and aggression ( Figure 8.8 ). The amygdala plays a part in how memories are stored because storage is influenced by stress hormones. For example, one researcher experimented with rats and the fear response (Josselyn, 2010). Using Pavlovian conditioning, a neutral tone was paired with a foot shock to the rats. This produced a fear memory in the rats. After being conditioned, each time they heard the tone, they would freeze (a defense response in rats), indicating a memory for the impending shock. Then the researchers induced cell death in neurons in the lateral amygdala, which is the specific area of the brain responsible for fear memories. They found the fear memory faded (became extinct). Because of its role in processing emotional information, the amygdala is also involved in memory consolidation: the process of transferring new learning into long-term memory. The amygdala seems to facilitate encoding memories at a deeper level when the event is emotionally arousing.

Link to Learning

In this TED Talk called “A Mouse. A Laser Beam. A Manipulated Memory,” Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu from MIT talk about using laser beams to manipulate fear memory in rats. Find out why their work caused a media frenzy once it was published in Science .

The Hippocampus

Another group of researchers also experimented with rats to learn how the hippocampus functions in memory processing ( Figure 8.8 ). They created lesions in the hippocampi of the rats, and found that the rats demonstrated memory impairment on various tasks, such as object recognition and maze running. They concluded that the hippocampus is involved in memory, specifically normal recognition memory as well as spatial memory (when the memory tasks are like recall tests) (Clark, Zola, & Squire, 2000). Another job of the hippocampus is to project information to cortical regions that give memories meaning and connect them with other memories. It also plays a part in memory consolidation: the process of transferring new learning into long-term memory.

Injury to this area leaves us unable to process new declarative memories. One famous patient, known for years only as H. M., had both his left and right temporal lobes (hippocampi) removed in an attempt to help control the seizures he had been suffering from for years (Corkin, Amaral, González, Johnson, & Hyman, 1997). As a result, his declarative memory was significantly affected, and he could not form new semantic knowledge. He lost the ability to form new memories, yet he could still remember information and events that had occurred prior to the surgery.

The Cerebellum and Prefrontal Cortex

Although the hippocampus seems to be more of a processing area for explicit memories, you could still lose it and be able to create implicit memories (procedural memory, motor learning, and classical conditioning), thanks to your cerebellum ( Figure 8.8 ). For example, one classical conditioning experiment is to accustom subjects to blink when they are given a puff of air to the eyes. When researchers damaged the cerebellums of rabbits, they discovered that the rabbits were not able to learn the conditioned eye-blink response (Steinmetz, 1999; Green & Woodruff-Pak, 2000).

Other researchers have used brain scans, including positron emission tomography (PET) scans, to learn how people process and retain information. From these studies, it seems the prefrontal cortex is involved. In one study, participants had to complete two different tasks: either looking for the letter a in words (considered a perceptual task) or categorizing a noun as either living or non-living (considered a semantic task) (Kapur et al., 1994). Participants were then asked which words they had previously seen. Recall was much better for the semantic task than for the perceptual task. According to PET scans, there was much more activation in the left inferior prefrontal cortex in the semantic task. In another study, encoding was associated with left frontal activity, while retrieval of information was associated with the right frontal region (Craik et al., 1999).


There also appear to be specific neurotransmitters involved with the process of memory, such as epinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, glutamate, and acetylcholine (Myhrer, 2003). There continues to be discussion and debate among researchers as to which neurotransmitter plays which specific role (Blockland, 1996). Although we don’t yet know which role each neurotransmitter plays in memory, we do know that communication among neurons via neurotransmitters is critical for developing new memories. Repeated activity by neurons leads to increased neurotransmitters in the synapses and more efficient and more synaptic connections. This is how memory consolidation occurs.

It is also believed that strong emotions trigger the formation of strong memories, and weaker emotional experiences form weaker memories; this is called arousal theory (Christianson, 1992). For example, strong emotional experiences can trigger the release of neurotransmitters, as well as hormones, which strengthen memory; therefore, our memory for an emotional event is usually better than our memory for a non-emotional event. When humans and animals are stressed, the brain secretes more of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which helps them remember the stressful event (McGaugh, 2003). This is clearly evidenced by what is known as the flashbulb memory phenomenon.

A flashbulb memory is an exceptionally clear recollection of an important event ( Figure 8.9 ). Many people who have lived through historic and momentous events can recall exactly where they were and how they heard about them. For example, a Pew Research Center (2011) survey found that for those Americans who were age 8 or older at the time of 9/11 terrorist attacks, 97% can recall the moment they learned of this event, even a decade after it happened. Many widely discussed examples of flashbulb memories pertain to national or global events, but according to their initial definition by researchers Brown and Kulik (1977) as well as additional work by more recent researchers, such a widely shared event is not required (Hirst & Phelps, 2016). Family members might always remember how they heard about an important event in their lives, or people in a school may recall nearly everything about the way they experienced a major event in that setting. And although most studies (and many conversations) involve negative memories, positive events can also elicit flashbulb memories.

Inaccurate and False Memories

Even flashbulb memories for important events can have decreased accuracy with the passage of time. For example, on at least three occasions, when asked how he heard about the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush responded inaccurately. In January 2002, less than 4 months after the attacks, the then sitting President Bush was asked how he heard about the attacks. He responded:

I was sitting there, and my Chief of Staff—well, first of all, when we walked into the classroom, I had seen this plane fly into the first building. There was a TV set on. And you know, I thought it was pilot error and I was amazed that anybody could make such a terrible mistake. (Greenberg, 2004, p. 2)

Contrary to what President Bush stated, no one saw the first plane hit, except people on the ground near the twin towers. No one watching live TV would have watched the first plane hit the twin towers. Until the first plane hit, it was a normal Tuesday morning.

Memory is not like a video recording. Human memory, even flashbulb memories, can be frail. Different parts of them, such as the time, visual elements, and smells, are stored in different places. When something is remembered, these components have to be put back together for the complete memory, which is known as memory reconstruction. Each component creates a chance for an error to occur. False memory is remembering something that did not happen. Research participants have recalled hearing a word, even though they never heard the word (Roediger & McDermott, 2000).

Do you remember where you were when you heard about a historic or perhaps a tragic event? Who were you with and what were you doing? What did you talk about? Can you contact those people you were with? Do they have the same memories as you or do they have different memories?

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Anatomy of the brain, what is the central nervous system (cns).

The CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord. The brain is an important organ that controls thought, memory, emotion, touch, motor skills, vision, breathing, temperature, hunger, and every process that regulates our body. The brain determines your personality and how you interact with the environment, including other people. This defines who you are.

What are the different parts of the brain?

Side view cross section of brain in male head showing cerebrum, cerebellum, and brainstem.

The brain can be divided into the cerebrum, brainstem, and cerebellum:

Cerebrum. This is the front of the brain. It is made up of the right and left hemispheres, which are joined by the corpus callosum. The cerebrum controls: initiation of movement, coordination of movement, temperature, touch, vision, hearing, judgment, reasoning, problem solving, emotions, and learning. The cerebrum is responsible for communication (speaking and writing), memory, abstract thought, and appreciation for music and art.

Brainstem. This is the middle of the brain. It includes the midbrain, the pons, and the medulla. The brainstem controls movement of the eyes, face, and mouth. It also relays sensory messages (such as hot, pain, and loud) and controls respirations, consciousness, cardiac function, involuntary muscle movements, sneezing, coughing, vomiting, and swallowing.

Cerebellum. This is the back of the brain. It coordinates voluntary muscle movements and helps to maintain posture, balance, and equilibrium.

More specifically, other parts of the brain include the following:

Pons. A deep part of the brain, located in the brainstem, the pons contains many of the control areas for eye and face movements.

Medulla. The lowest part of the brainstem, the medulla is the most vital part of the entire brain and contains important control centers for the heart and lungs.

Spinal cord. A large bundle of nerve fibers located in the back that extends from the base of the brain to the lower back, the spinal cord carries messages to and from the brain and the rest of the body.

Frontal lobe. The largest section of the brain located in the front of the head, the frontal lobe is involved in personality characteristics and movement. Recognition of smell often involves parts of the frontal lobe.

Parietal lobe. The middle part of the brain, the parietal lobe helps a person to identify objects and understand spatial relationships (where one's body is compared to objects around the person). The parietal lobe is also involved in interpreting pain and touch in the body.

Occipital lobe. This is the back part of the brain that is involved with vision.

Temporal lobe. The sides of the brain, these temporal lobes are involved in short-term memory, speech, musical rhythm, and some degree of smell recognition. The temporal lobes are also important in understanding sound and voice.

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Disorder: something that is not in order. Not arranged correctly. In medicine a disorder is when something in the body is not working correctly.

Electroencephalogram: visual recording showing the electrical activity of the brain (EEG)...  more

Emotion: any of a long list of feelings a person can have such as joy, anger and love...  more

What Are the Regions of the Brain and What Do They Do?

The brain has many different parts . The brain also has specific areas that do certain types of work. These areas are called lobes. One lobe works with your eyes when watching a movie. There is a lobe that is controlling your legs and arms when running and kicking a soccer ball. There are two lobes that are involved with reading and writing. Your memories of a favorite event are kept by the same lobe that helps you on a math test. The brain is controlling all of these things and a lot more. Use the map below to take a tour of the regions in the brain and learn what they control in your body.

The brain is a very busy organ. It is the control center for the body. It runs your organs such as your heart and lungs. It is also busy working with other parts of your body. All of your senses  –  sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste  –  depend on your brain. Tasting food with the sensors on your tongue is only possible if the signals from your taste buds are sent to the brain. Once in the brain, the signals are decoded. The sweet flavor of an orange is only sweet if the brain tells you it is.

Brain Waves

EEG recording net

How do you tell if the brain is working? What is it doing and how do you measure it? The head gear on the right that looks like it's from a work of science fiction measures electrical activity in the brain. These electrical waves are called brain waves.

When neurons send a signal they use electrical currents to pass messages to other nearby neurons. Just one or two neurons signaling is too small a change to be noticed. When a huge group of neurons signal at once, however, they can be recorded and measured with the help of special tools.

Measuring electrical activity in the brain is usually done with electrodes. Electrodes are devices able to record electrical changes over time. These are attached to the surface of the skin in specific places around the head. Recordings of brain wave activity look like a series of waves. These are called electroencephalograms, or EEGs for short.

Measuring activity in the brain can be a very useful tool in scientific studies. They can also be used to help identify sleeping disorders and other medical conditions relating to the brain.

First EEG recording.

The first human electroencephalogram, recorded in 1924 by Hans Berger.

Computer animation credit: BodyParts3D, Copyright© 2010 The Database Center for Life Science licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.1 Japan.

Read more about: A Nervous Journey

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  • Article: What's Your Brain Doing?
  • Author(s): Brett Szymik
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  • Date published: May 9, 2011
  • Date accessed: May 28, 2024
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Brett Szymik. (2011, May 09). What's Your Brain Doing?. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved May 28, 2024 from

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Computer animation image of the human brain. The colors show the frontal lobe (red), parietal lobe (orange), temporal lobe (green), and occipital lobe (yellow).

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Understanding How the Brain Thinks

Neurologist and teacher Judy Willis describes how brains develop critical thinking skills.

Understanding How the Brain Works

For 21st century success, now more than ever, students will need a skill set far beyond the current mandated standards that are evaluated on standardized tests. The qualifications for success in today's ever-changing world will demand the ability to think critically, communicate clearly, use continually changing technology, be culturally aware and adaptive, and possess the judgment and open-mindedness to make complex decisions based on accurate analysis of information. The most rewarding jobs of this century will be those that cannot be done by computers.

For students to be best prepared for the opportunities and challenges awaiting them, they need to develop their highest thinking skills -- the brain's executive functions. These higher-order neural networks are undergoing their most rapid development during the school years, and teachers are in the best position to promote the activation of these circuits. With the help of their teachers, students can develop the skillsets needed to solve problems that have not yet been recognized, analyze information as it becomes rapidly available in the globalized communication systems, and to skillfully and creatively take advantage of the evolving technological advances as they become available.

Factory Model of Education Prepares for "Assembly Line" Jobs

Automation and computerization are exceeding human ability for doing repetitive tasks and calculations, but the educational model has not changed. The factory model of education, still in place today, was designed for producing assembly line workers to do assigned tasks correctly. These workers did not need to analyze, create, or question.

Ironically, in response to more information, many educators are mandated to teach more rote facts and procedures, and students are given bigger books with more to memorize. In every country where I've given presentations and workshops, the problem is the same: overstuffed curriculum.

Even in countries where high-stakes standardized testing is not a dominant factor, school curriculum and emphasis have changed to provide more time for this additional rote memorization. Creative opportunities -- the arts, debate, general P.E., collaborative work, and inquiry -- are sacrificed at the altar of more predigested facts to be passively memorized. These students have fewer opportunities to discover the connections between isolated facts and to build neural networks of concepts that are needed to transfer learning to applications beyond the contexts in which the information is learned and practiced.

The High Costs of Maintaining the Factory Model

If students do not have opportunities to develop their higher order, cognitive skillsets they won't develop the reason, logic, creative problem solving, concept development, media literacy, and communication skills best suited for the daily complexities of life or the professional jobs of their future. Without these skills, they won't be able to compete on the global employment market with students currently developing their executive functions.

Instead, the best jobs will go to applicants who analyze information as it becomes available, adapt when new information makes facts obsolete, and collaborate with other experts on a global playing field. All these skills require tolerance, willingness to consider alternative perspectives, and the ability to articulate one's ideas successfully.

As educators, it is our challenge to see that all students have opportunities to stimulate their developing executive function networks so when they leave school they have the critical skillsets to choose the career and life paths that will give them the most satisfaction.

Executive Function = Critical Thinking

What my field of neurology has called "executive functions" for over 100 years are these highest cognitive processes. These executive functions have been given a variety of less specific names in education terminology such as higher order thinking or critical thinking. These are skillsets beyond those computers can do because they allow for flexible, interpretive, creative, and multidimensional thinking -- suitable for current and future challenges and opportunities. Executive functions can be thought of as the skills that would make a corporate executive successful. These include planning, flexibility, tolerance, risk assessment, informed decision-making, reasoning, analysis, and delay of immediate gratification to achieve long-term goals. These executive functions further allow for organizing, sorting, connecting, prioritizing, self-monitoring, self-correcting, self-assessing, abstracting, and focusing.

The Prefrontal Cortex: Home to Critical Thinking

The executive function control centers develop in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC gives us the potential to consider and voluntarily control our thinking, emotional responses, and behavior. It is the reflective "higher brain" compared to the reactive "lower brain". This prime real estate of the PFC comprises the highest percentage of brain volume in humans, compared to all other animals, which is roughly 20% of our brains.

Animals, compared to humans, are more dependent on their reactive lower brains to survive in their unpredictable environments where it is appropriate that automatic responses not be delayed by complex analysis. As man developed more control of his environment, the luxury of a bigger reflective brain correlated with the evolution of the PFC to its current proportions.

The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to mature. This maturation is a process of neuroplasticity that includes 1) the pruning of unused cells to better provide for the metabolic needs of more frequently used neurons and 2) strengthening the connections in the circuits that are most used. Another aspect of neuroplasticity is the growth of stronger and increased numbers of connections among neurons. Each of the brain's over one billion neurons holds only a tiny bit of information. It is only when multiple neurons connect through their branches (axons and dendrites) that a memory is stored and retrievable.

This prefrontal cortex maturation, the pruning and strengthening process, continues into the twenties, with the most rapid changes in the age range of 8-16. Electricity flows from neuron to neuron through the axons and dendrites. This electrical flow carries information and also provides the stimulus that promotes the growth of these connections. Each time a network is activated -- the information recalled for review or use -- the connections become stronger and faster (speed through a circuit is largely determined by the layers of myelin coating that are built up around the axons -- this is also in response to the flow of the electric current of information transport when the circuit is activated). The stimulation of these networks during the ages of their rapid development strongly influences the development of the executive functions -- the social-emotional control and the highest thinking skillsets that today's students will carry with them as they leave school and become adults.

Preparing Students for the Challenges and Opportunities of the 21st Century

We have the obligation to provide our students with opportunities to learn the required foundational information and procedures through experiences that stimulate their developing neural networks of executive functions. We activate these networks through active learning experiences that involve students' prefrontal cortex circuits of judgment, critical analysis, induction, deduction, relational thinking with prior knowledge activation, and prediction. These experiences promote creative information processing as students recognize relationships between what they learn and what they already know. This is when neuroplasticity steps in and new connections (dendrites, synapses, myelinated axons) physically grow between formerly separate memory circuits when they are activated together. This is the physical manifestation of the "neurons that fire together, wire together" phenomenon.

Unless new rote memories are incorporated into larger, relational networks, they remain isolated bits of data in small, unconnected circuits. It is through active mental manipulation with prior knowledge that new information becomes incorporated into the already established neural network of previously acquired related memory.

Teaching that Strengthens Executive Function Networks

Making the switch from memorization to mental manipulation is about applying, communicating, and supporting what one already knows. The incorporation of rote memorization into the sturdy existing networks of long-term memory takes place when students recognize relationships to the prior knowledge stored in those networks.

When you provide students with opportunities to apply learning, especially through authentic, personally meaningful activities with formative assessments and corrective feedback throughout a unit, facts move from rote memory to become consolidated into related memory bank, instead of being pruned away from disuse.

The disuse pruning is another aspect of the brain's neuroplasticity. To best support the frequently used networks, the brain essentially dissolves isolated small neural networks of "unincorporated" facts and procedures that are rarely activated beyond drills and tests.

In contrast, opportunities to process new learning through executive functions promote its linkage to existing related memory banks through the growth of linking dendrites and synapses.

Students need to be explicitly taught and given opportunities to practice using executive functions to organize, prioritize, compare, contrast, connect to prior knowledge, give new examples of a concept, participate in open-ended discussions, synthesize new learning into concise summaries, and symbolize new learning into new mental constructs, such as through the arts or writing across the curriculum.

How to Engage Students' Developing Neural Networks to Promote Executive Function

The recommendations here are a few of the ways to engage students' developing networks of executive functions while they are undergoing their most rapid phase of maturation during the school years. Part 2 of this blog will delve more deeply into the mental manipulation strategies that promote consolidation of new input into existing memory circuits.

Judgment: This executive function, when developed, promotes a student's ability to monitor the accuracy of his or her work. Guidance, experiences, and feedback in estimation; editing and revising one's own written work; and class discussions for conflict resolution can activate the circuitry to build judgment.

Prioritizing: This executive function helps students to separate low relevance details from the main ideas of a text, lecture, math word problem, or complete units of study. Prioritizing skills are also used when students are guided to see how new facts fit into broader concepts, to plan ahead for long-term projects/reports, and to keep records of their most successful strategies that make the most efficient use of their time.

Setting goals, providing self-feedback, monitoring progress: Until students fully develop this PFC executive function, they are limited in their capacity to set and stick to realistic and manageable goals. They need support in recognizing the incremental progress they make as they apply effort towards their larger goals (see my previous two blogs about the "video game" model: How to Plan Instruction Using the Video Game Model and A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool ).

Model Metacognition Development Yourself

Planning learning opportunities to activate executive function often means going beyond the curriculum provided in textbooks. This is a hefty burden when you are also under the mandate of teaching a body of information that exceeds the time needed for successful mental manipulation.

When you do provide these executive function-activating opportunities, students will recognize their own changing attitudes and achievements. Students will begin to experience and comment on these insights, "I thought ... would be boring, but it was pretty interesting" and "This is the first time I really understood ... " or simply, "Thanks" and "That was cool."

These student responses are teachable moments to promote metacognition. Consider sharing the processes you use to create the instruction that they respond to positively. These discussions will help students recognize their abilities to extend their horizons and focus beyond simply getting by with satisfactory grades. They can build their executive functions of long-term goal-directed behavior, advance planning, delay of immediate gratification. In this way, they can take advantage of opportunities to review and revise work -- even when it has been completed -- rather than to be satisfied with "getting it done." Your input can help students see the link between taking responsibility for class participation, collaboration, and setting high self-standards for all classwork and homework, such that they can say, "I did my best and am proud of my efforts."

As written on the gate of my college, the message we can send our students is:

Climb high. Aim Far. Your goal the sun; Your aim the stars.

Copyright © Judy Willis 2011

Parts of the Brain: Anatomy, Structure & Functions

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Learn about our Editorial Process

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Editor-in-Chief for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, PhD., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years of experience in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

On This Page:

The brain controls all functions of the body, interprets information from the outside world, and defines who we are as individuals and how we experience the world.

The brain receives information through our senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing. This information is processed in the brain, allowing us to give meaning to the input it receives.

The brain is part of the central nervous system ( CNS ) along with the spinal cord. There is also a peripheral nervous system (PNS) comprised of 31 pairs of spinal nerves that branch from the spinal cord and cranial nerves that branch from the brain.

Brain Parts

The brain is composed of the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brainstem (Fig. 1).

The brain is composed of the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brainstem

Figure 1. The brain has three main parts: the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brainstem.

The cerebrum is the largest and most recognizable part of the brain. It consists of grey matter (the cerebral cortex ) and white matter at the center. The cerebrum is divided into two hemispheres, the left and right, and contains the lobes of the brain (frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes).

The cerebrum produces higher functioning roles such as thinking, learning, memory, language, emotion, movement, and perception.

The Cerebellum

The cerebellum is located under the cerebrum and monitors and regulates motor behaviors, especially automatic movements.

This structure is also important for regulating posture and balance and has recently been suggested for being involved in learning and attention.

Although the cerebellum only accounts for roughly 10% of the brain’s total weight, this area is thought to contain more neurons (nerve cells) than the rest of the brain combined.

The brainstem is located at the base of the brain. This area connects the cerebrum and the cerebellum to the spinal cord, acting as a relay station for these areas.

The brainstem regulates automatic functions such as sleep cycles, breathing, body temperature, digestion, coughing, and sneezing.

A diagram of the brain stem with the anatomical parts labelled: Thalamus, midbrain, pons, medulla and spinal cord

Right Brain vs. Left Brain

The cerebrum is divided into two halves: the right and left hemispheres (Fig. 2). The left hemisphere controls the right half of the body, and the right hemisphere controls the left half.

The two hemispheres are connected by a thick band of neural fibers known as the corpus callosum, consisting of about 200 million axons.

The corpus callosum allows the two hemispheres to communicate and allows information being processed on one side of the brain to be shared with the other.

The cerebrum is divided into left and right hemispheres. The two sides are connected by the nerve fibers corpus callosum.

Figure 2. The cerebrum is divided into left and right hemispheres. The nerve fibers corpus callosum connects the two sides.

Hemispheric lateralization is the idea that each hemisphere is responsible for different functions. Each of these functions is localized to either the right or left side.

The left hemisphere is associated with language functions, such as formulating grammar and vocabulary and containing different language centers (Broca’s and Wernicke’s area).

The right hemisphere is associated with more visuospatial functions such as visualization, depth perception, and spatial navigation. These left and right functions are the case in most people, especially those who are right-handed.

Lobes of the Brain

Each cerebral hemisphere can be subdivided into four lobes, each associated with different functions.

The four lobes of the brain are the frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes (Figure 3).

cerebral hemispheres: Frontal lobes, Occipital lobes, Parietal lobes, Temporal lobes

Figure 3. The cerebrum is divided into four lobes: frontal, parietal, occipital, and temporal.

Frontal lobes

The frontal lobes are located at the front of the brain, behind the forehead (Figure 4).

Their main functions are associated with higher cognitive functions, including problem-solving, decision-making, attention, intelligence, and voluntary behaviors.

The frontal lobes contain the motor cortex  responsible for planning and coordinating movements.

It also contains the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for initiating higher-lever cognitive functioning, and Broca’s Area, which is essential for language production.

frontal lobe structure

Figure 4. Frontal lobe structure.

Temporal lobes

The temporal lobes are located on both sides of the brain, near the temples of the head, hence the name temporal lobes (Figure 5).

The main functions of these lobes include understanding, language, memory acquisition, face recognition, object recognition, perception, and auditory information processing.

There is a temporal lobe in both the left and right hemispheres. The left temporal lobe, which is usually the most dominant in people, is associated with language, learning, memorizing, forming words, and remembering verbal information.

The left lobe also contains a vital language center known as Wernicke’s area, which is essential for language development. The right temporal lobe is usually associated with learning and memorizing non-verbal information and determining facial expressions.

temporal lobe structure

Figure 5. Temporal lobe structure.

Parietal lobes

The parietal lobe is located at the top of the brain, between the frontal and occipital lobes, and above the temporal lobes (Figure 6).

The parietal lobe is essential for integrating information from the body’s senses to allow us to build a coherent picture of the world around us.

These lobes allow us to perceive our bodies through somatosensory information (e.g., through touch, pressure, and temperature). It can also help with visuospatial processing, reading, and number representations (mathematics).

The parietal lobes also contain the somatosensory cortex, which receives and processes sensory information, integrating this into a representational map of the body.

This means it can pinpoint the exact area of the body where a sensation is felt, as well as perceive the weight of objects, shape, and texture.

Parietal Lobe Structure (Simply Psychology)

Figure 6. Parietal lobe structure.

Occipital lobes

The occipital lobes are located at the back of the brain behind the temporal and parietal lobes and below the occipital bone of the skull (Figure 7).

The occipital lobes receive sensory information from the eyes’ retinas, which is then encoded into different visual data. Some of the functions of the occipital lobes include being able to assess the size, depth, and distance, determine color information, object and facial recognition, and mapping the visual world.

The occipital lobes also contain the primary visual cortex, which receives sensory information from the retinas, transmitting this information relating to location, spatial data, motion, and the colors of objects in the field of vision.

Occipital Lobe Structure (Simply Psychology)

Figure 7. Occipital lobe structure.

Cerebral Cortex

The surface of the cerebrum is called the cerebral cortex  and has a wrinkled appearance, consisting of bulges, also known as gyri, and deep furrows, known as sulci (Figure 8).

A gyrus (plural: gyri) is the name given to the bumps and ridges on the cerebral cortex (the outermost layer of the brain). A sulcus (plural: sulci) is another name for a groove in the cerebral cortex.

The cortex contains neurons (grey matter), which are interconnected to other brain areas by axons (white matter). The cortex has a folded appearance. A fold is called a gyrus and the valley between is a sulcus.

Figure 8. The cortex contains neurons (grey matter) interconnected to other brain areas by axons (white matter). The cortex has a folded appearance. A fold is called a gyrus, and the valley between is a sulcus.

The cerebral cortex is primarily constructed of grey matter (neural tissue made up of neurons), with between 14 and 16 billion neurons found here.

The many folds and wrinkles of the cerebral cortex allow a wider surface area for an increased number of neurons to live there, permitting large amounts of information to be processed.

Deep Structures

The amygdala is a structure deep in the brain that is involved in the processing of emotions and fear learning. The amygdala is a part of the limbic system, a neural network that mediates emotion and memory (Figure 9).

This structure also ties emotional meaning to memories, processes rewards, and helps us make decisions. This structure has also been linked with the fight-or-flight response.

part of the brain involved in problem solving

Figure 9. The amygdala in the limbic system plays a key role in how animals assess and respond to environmental threats and challenges by evaluating the emotional importance of sensory information and prompting an appropriate response.

Thalamus and Hypothalamus

The thalamus relays information between the cerebral cortex, brain stem, and other cortical structures (Figure 10).

Because of its interactive role in relaying sensory and motor information, the thalamus contributes to many processes, including attention, perception, timing, and movement. The hypothalamus modulates a range of behavioral and physiological functions.

It controls autonomic functions such as hunger, thirst, body temperature, and sexual activity. To do this, the hypothalamus integrates information from different brain parts and responds to various stimuli such as light, odor, and stress.

The thalamus is often described as the relay station of the brain as a great deal of information that reaches the cerebral cortex, first stops in the thalamus before being sent to its destination.

Figure 10. The thalamus is often described as the brain’s relay station as a great deal of information that reaches the cerebral cortex first stops in the thalamus before being sent to its destination.


The hippocampus is a curved-shaped structure in the limbic system associated with learning and memory (Figure 11).

This structure is most strongly associated with the formation of memories, is an early storage system for new long-term memories, and plays a role in the transition of these long-term memories to more permanent memories.

Hippocampus location in the brain

Figure 11. Hippocampus location in the brain

Basal Ganglia

The basal ganglia are a group of structures that regulate the coordination of fine motor movements, balance, and posture alongside the cerebellum.

These structures are connected to other motor areas and link the thalamus with the motor cortex. The basal ganglia are also involved in cognitive and emotional behaviors, as well as playing a role in reward and addiction.

The Basal Ganglia Illustration.

Figure 12. The Basal Ganglia Illustration

Ventricles and Cerebrospinal Fluid

Within the brain, there are fluid-filled interconnected cavities called ventricles , which are extensions of the spinal cord. These are filled with a substance called cerebrospinal fluid, which is a clear and colorless liquid.

The ventricles produce cerebrospinal fluid and transport and remove this fluid. The ventricles do not have a unique function, but they provide cushioning to the brain and are useful for determining the locations of other brain structures.

Cerebrospinal fluid circulates the brain and spinal cord and functions to cushion the brain within the skull. If damage occurs to the skull, the cerebrospinal fluid will act as a shock absorber to help protect the brain from injury.


As well as providing cushioning, the cerebrospinal fluid circulates nutrients and chemicals filtered from the blood and removes waste products from the brain. Cerebrospinal fluid is constantly absorbed and replenished by the ventricles.

If there were a disruption or blockage, this can cause a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid and can cause enlarged ventricles.

Neurons are the nerve cells of the central nervous system that transmit information through electrochemical signals throughout the body. Neurons contain a soma, a cell body from which the axon extends.

Axons are nerve fibers that are the longest part of the neuron, which conduct electrical impulses away from the soma.

Diagram of Neuron Anatomy

There are dendrites at the end of the neuron, which are branch-like structures that send and receive information from other neurons.

A myelin sheath, a fatty insulating layer, forms around the axon, allowing nerve impulses to travel down the axon quickly.

There are different types of neurons. Sensory neurons transmit sensory information, motor neurons transmit motor information, and relay neurons allow sensory and motor neurons to communicate.

The communication between neurons is called synapses. Neurons communicate with each other via synaptic clefts, which are gaps between the endings of neurons.

Transmission of the nerve signal between two neurons with axon and synapse. Close-up of a chemical synapse

During synaptic transmission, chemicals, such as neurotransmitters, are released from the endings of the previous neuron (also known as the presynaptic neuron).

These chemicals enter the synaptic cleft to then be transported to receptors on the next neuron (also known as the postsynaptic neuron).

Once transported to the next neuron, the chemical messengers continue traveling down neurons to influence many functions, such as behavior and movement.

Glial Cells

Glial cells are non-neuronal cells in the central nervous system which work to provide the neurons with nourishment, support, and protection.

These are star-shaped cells that function to maintain the environment for neuronal signaling by controlling the levels of neurotransmitters surrounding the synapses.

They also work to clean up what is left behind after synaptic transmission, either recycling any leftover neurotransmitters or cleaning up when a neuron dies.


These types of glial have the appearance of balls with spikes all around them. They function by wrapping around the axons of neurons to form a protective layer called the myelin sheath.

This is a substance that is rich in fat and provides insulation to the neurons to aid neuronal signaling.

Microglial cells have oval bodies and many branches projecting out of them. The primary function of these cells is to respond to injuries or diseases in the central nervous system.

They respond by clearing away any dead cells or removing any harmful toxins or pathogens that may be present, so they are, therefore, important to the brain’s health.

Ependymal cells

These cells are column-shaped and usually line up together to form a membrane called the ependyma. The ependyma is a thin membrane lining the spinal cord and ventricles of the brain .

In the ventricles, these cells have small hairlike structures called cilia, which help encourage the flow of cerebrospinal fluid.

Cranial Nerves

There are 12 types of cranial nerves which are linked directly to the brain without having to pass through the spinal cord. These allow sensory information to pass from the organs of the face to the brain:

Cranial nerves. human brain and brainstem from below

Mnemonic for Order of Cranial Nerves:

S ome S ay M arry M oney B ut M y B rother S ays B ig B rains M atter M ore

  • Cranial I: Sensory
  • Cranial II: Sensory
  • Cranial III: Motor
  • Cranial IV: Motor
  • Cranial V: Both (sensory & motor)
  • Cranial VI: Motor
  • Cranial VII: Both (sensory & motor)
  • Cranial VIII: Sensory
  • Cranial IX: Both (sensory & motor)
  • Cranial X: Both (sensory & motor)
  • Cranial XI: Motor
  • Cranial XII: Motor

Purves, D., Augustine, G., Fitzpatrick, D., Katz, L., LaMantia, A., McNamara, J., & Williams, S. (2001). Neuroscience 2nd edition . sunderland (ma) sinauer associates. Types of Eye Movements and Their Functions.

Mayfield Brain and Spine (n.d.). Anatomy of the Brain. Retrieved July 28, 2021, from:

Robertson, S. (2018, August 23). What is Grey Matter? News Medical Life Sciences.

Guy-Evans, O. (2021, April 13). Temporal lobe: definition, functions, and location. Simply Psychology.

Guy-Evans, O. (2021, April 15). Parietal lobe: definition, functions, and location. Simply Psychology.

Guy-Evans, O. (2021, April 19). Occipital lobe: definition, functions, and location. Simply Psychology.

Guy-Evans, O. (2021, May 08). Frontal lobe function, location in brain, damage, more. Simply Psychology.

Guy-Evans, O. (2021, June 09). Gyri and sulci of the brain. Simply Psychology.

Human Brain Anatomy Infographic Card Poster System Concept of Diagnostics and Health Care Flat Design Style. Vector illustration of Head

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  • The Brain Facts Book

Important Brain Regions for Decision-Making

  • Reviewed 8 May 2023
  • Author Marissa Fessenden
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

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You make many different types of decisions every day. Some of these rely primarily on logical reasoning — for example, when you compare the timetables for the bus and subway to determine the quickest way to get to a friend’s house. Other decisions have emotional consequences at stake, like when the person you’re trying to impress offers you a cigarette — your desire to be accepted might outweigh your rational consideration of smoking’s harms.

Decision-making requires a person to weigh values, understand rules, make plans, and form predictions about the outcomes of their choices. Both logical reasoning and emotional (affective) decision-making involve the brain’s prefrontal cortex (PFC). In particular, activity in the lateral PFC is especially important in overriding emotional responses during decision-making. The area’s strong connections with brain regions related to motivation and emotion, such as the amygdala and nucleus accumbens , seem to exert a sort of top-down control over emotional and impulsive responses. For example, brain imaging studies have found the lateral PFC is more active in people declining a small monetary reward given immediately in favor of receiving a larger reward in the future. This is one of the last areas of the brain to mature — usually in a person’s late 20s — which explains why teens sometimes may have trouble regulating emotions or controlling impulses.

The orbitofrontal cortex , a region of the PFC located just behind the eyes, also appears to be important in affective decision-making, especially in situations involving reward and punishment. The area has been implicated in addiction as well as social behavior. 

Adapted from the 8th edition of Brain Facts by Marissa Fessenden.

About the Author

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Marissa Fessenden

Marissa Fessenden is a freelance science journalist and illustrator. They gravitate toward stories about genes, wildlife and places large and small, as well as times when art gets science-y or science gets artsy.



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Lobes of the Brain

Learning objectives.

  • Identify the location and function of the lobes of the brain

Forebrain Structures

An illustration shows the position and size of the forebrain (the largest portion), midbrain (a small central portion), and hindbrain (a portion in the lower back part of the brain).

The four lobes of the brain are the frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes (Figure 2). The frontal lobe is located in the forward part of the brain, extending back to a fissure known as the central sulcus . The frontal lobe is involved in reasoning, motor control, emotion, and language. It contains the motor cortex , which is involved in planning and coordinating movement; the prefrontal cortex , which is responsible for higher-level cognitive functioning; and Broca’s area , which is essential for language production.

An illustration shows the four lobes of the brain.

People who suffer damage to Broca’s area have great difficulty producing language of any form. For example, Padma was an electrical engineer who was socially active and a caring, involved mother. About twenty years ago, she was in a car accident and suffered damage to her Broca’s area. She completely lost the ability to speak and form any kind of meaningful language. There is nothing wrong with her mouth or her vocal cords, but she is unable to produce words. She can follow directions but can’t respond verbally, and she can read but no longer write. She can do routine tasks like running to the market to buy milk, but she could not communicate verbally if a situation called for it.

Image (a) is a photograph of Phineas Gage holding a metal rod. Image (b) is an illustration of a skull with a metal rod passing through it from the cheek area to the top of the skull.

Probably the most famous case of frontal lobe damage is that of a man by the name of Phineas Gage. On September 13, 1848, Gage (age 25) was working as a railroad foreman in Vermont. He and his crew were using an iron rod to tamp explosives down into a blasting hole to remove rock along the railway’s path. Unfortunately, the iron rod created a spark and caused the rod to explode out of the blasting hole, into Gage’s face, and through his skull (Figure 3). Although lying in a pool of his own blood with brain matter emerging from his head, Gage was conscious and able to get up, walk, and speak. But in the months following his accident, people noticed that his personality had changed. Many of his friends described him as no longer being himself. Before the accident, it was said that Gage was a well-mannered, soft-spoken man, but he began to behave in odd and inappropriate ways after the accident. Such changes in personality would be consistent with loss of impulse control—a frontal lobe function.

Beyond the damage to the frontal lobe itself, subsequent investigations into the rod’s path also identified probable damage to pathways between the frontal lobe and other brain structures, including the limbic system. With connections between the planning functions of the frontal lobe and the emotional processes of the limbic system severed, Gage had difficulty controlling his emotional impulses.

However, there is some evidence suggesting that the dramatic changes in Gage’s personality were exaggerated and embellished. Gage’s case occurred in the midst of a 19 th century debate over localization—regarding whether certain areas of the brain are associated with particular functions. On the basis of extremely limited information about Gage, the extent of his injury, and his life before and after the accident, scientists tended to find support for their own views, on whichever side of the debate they fell (Macmillan, 1999).

Link to learning

Watch this clip about Phineas Gage to learn more about his accident and injury.

You can view the  transcript for “Phineas Gage (LEGO Stop-Motion Video)” (opens in new window).

Image of the motor cortex, detailing how specific areas correlate to distinct body parts, like the throat, tongue, jaw, lips, face, hands, and other body parts.

One particularly fascinating area in the frontal lobe is called the “primary motor cortex”. This strip running along the side of the brain is in charge of voluntary movements like waving goodbye, wiggling your eyebrows, and kissing. It is an excellent example of the way that the various regions of the brain are highly specialized. Interestingly, each of our various body parts has a unique portion of the primary motor cortex devoted to it. Each individual finger has about as much dedicated brain space as your entire leg. Your lips, in turn, require about as much dedicated brain processing as all of your fingers and your hand combined!

A diagram shows the organization in the somatosensory cortex, with functions for these parts in this proximal sequential order: toes, ankles, knees, hips, trunk, shoulders, elbows, wrists, hands, fingers, thumbs, neck, eyebrows and eyelids, eyeballs, face, lips, jaw, tongue, salivation, chewing, and swallowing.

Because the cerebral cortex in general, and the frontal lobe in particular, are associated with such sophisticated functions as planning and being self-aware they are often thought of as a higher, less primal portion of the brain. Indeed, other animals such as rats and kangaroos while they do have frontal regions of their brain do not have the same level of development in the cerebral cortices. The closer an animal is to humans on the evolutionary tree—think chimpanzees and gorillas, the more developed is this portion of their brain.

The brain’s parietal lobe is located immediately behind the frontal lobe, and is involved in processing information from the body’s senses. It contains the somatosensory cortex , which is essential for processing sensory information from across the body, such as touch, temperature, and pain. The somatosensory cortex is organized topographically, which means that spatial relationships that exist in the body are maintained on the surface of the somatosensory cortex. For example, the portion of the cortex that processes sensory information from the hand is adjacent to the portion that processes information from the wrist.

An illustration shows the locations of Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas.

The temporal lobe is located on the side of the head (temporal means “near the temples”), and is associated with hearing, memory, emotion, and some aspects of language. The auditory cortex , the main area responsible for processing auditory information, is located within the temporal lobe. Wernicke’s area , important for speech comprehension, is also located here. Whereas individuals with damage to Broca’s area have difficulty producing language, those with damage to Wernicke’s area can produce sensible language, but they are unable to understand it.

The occipital lobe is located at the very back of the brain, and contains the primary visual cortex, which is responsible for interpreting incoming visual information. The occipital cortex is organized retinotopically, which means there is a close relationship between the position of an object in a person’s visual field and the position of that object’s representation on the cortex. You will learn much more about how visual information is processed in the occipital lobe when you study sensation and perception.

Food for Thought

Consider the following advice from Joseph LeDoux, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at New York University, as you learn about the specific parts of the brain:

Be suspicious of any statement that says a brain area is a center responsible for some function. The notion of functions being products of brain areas or centers is left over from the days when most evidence about brain function was based on the effects of brain lesions localized to specific areas. Today, we think of functions as products of systems rather than of areas. Neurons in areas contribute because they are part of a system. The amygdala, for example, contributes to threat detection because it is part of a threat detection system. And just because the amygdala contributes to threat detection does not mean that threat detection is the only function to which it contributes. Amygdala neurons, for example, are also components of systems that process the significance of stimuli related to eating, drinking, sex, and addictive drugs.

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surface of the brain that is associated with our highest mental capabilities

largest part of the brain, containing the cerebral cortex, the thalamus, and the limbic system, among other structures

part of the cerebral cortex involved in reasoning, motor control, emotion, and language; contains motor cortex

depressions or grooves in the cerebral cortex

strip of cortex involved in planning and coordinating movement

area in the frontal lobe responsible for higher-level cognitive functioning

region in the left hemisphere that is essential for language production

part of the cerebral cortex involved in processing various sensory and perceptual information; contains the primary somatosensory cortex

essential for processing sensory information from across the body, such as touch, temperature, and pain

part of cerebral cortex associated with hearing, memory, emotion, and some aspects of language; contains primary auditory cortex

strip of cortex in the temporal lobe that is responsible for processing auditory information

important for speech comprehension

part of the cerebral cortex associated with visual processing; contains the primary visual cortex

General Psychology Copyright © by OpenStax and Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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