The brain is responsible for everything that makes up a person's thoughts, feelings, perceptions, language, and behaviors. It allows for the full range of the human experience.
Through various types of studies, psychologists have determined that certain areas and structures of the brain relate to certain behaviors or mental processes. This is what is called localization of functions, meaning that specific areas lead to certain functions. This is common in most people.
However, the brain is so complex that ongoing research is necessary. For instance, one area of the brain is aligned to vision, but the one specific neuron that leads to that one function of vision is unknown. That level of complexity is too difficult to fully understand at this time, but much progress has been made.
The brain adapts to different situations and different responses from the environment. This is called neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to change in response to the environment or to different kinds of events that occur in life.
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However, because of neuroplasticity and the ability of the brain to adapt, this individual regains some of the functions over time. How is this possible?
The area surrounding the damaged parts of the brain began to take on some of those different functions because the brain has changed in order to adapt, and has learned to compensate for the damaged areas.
Some stroke victims may not completely regain all of their function, but they might regain some of it over time.
Localization of function has been studied in patients with brain trauma. The loss of certain abilities has been studied to determine which area(s) of the brain caused the damage.
EXAMPLEPeople who have lost speech have been examined and found to have a certain area of the brain that was damaged. This was later determined to be called the Broca's area, which is related to the production of speech itself.
Phineas Gage is a famous psychological subject, who had a tamping rod shot through the frontal lobe of his brain and survived.
There was damage to a specific part of his brain and it severely affected his mood and personality. He essentially became a different person. Localization of function was studied, and psychologists began to understand that part of the brain is related to personality and mood.
The internal structures in the forebrain comprise what is called the limbic system, which is an area of the brain involved in aspects such as emotions, motivation, and memory formation. This area acts as an intermediary system to the cerebral cortex, as it passes on a lot of the information and processes it in different ways.
Injury to the thalamus can lead to a loss of senses in general, like deafness or blindness. The thalamus is also related to control of movement and sleep as well.
The hypothalamus, which is the even smaller gland located right in front of the thalamus, is involved in things like motivation and emotion within people. One of the major duties of the hypothalamus is to regulate food, water, and sleep motivations. Damage to specific areas of the hypothalamus can result in different aspects of overeating or under-eating, drinking, or sleeping.
The hypothalamus regulates the autonomic nervous system and controls all of those regular bodily functions that keep us alive. Those things that we don't necessarily consciously deal with, like heartbeat and digestion, are regulated by the hypothalamus.
The amygdala can lead to the creation of a lot of irrational fears or phobias. If you have any phobia, you likely know that these kinds of things are very difficult to shake. It's hard to get rid of a phobia. Therefore, you can see how intrinsic and powerful this organ can be to the formation of different kinds of thoughts and ideas.
Now, remember that as with all parts of the brain, the parts of the limbic system also work together in many ways. The thalamus and the hypothalamus help to bring all of that sensory information to the higher levels of the brain. The amygdala attaches emotions and helps to create those quick-thinking types of responses. In addition, they all act as conduits to relay that information up to the cerebral cortex.
Similarly, with all of those parts working in conjunction, the hippocampus takes all the sensory information and the emotions that these three other organs are processing, and then attaches it to different kinds of events and helps to create strong long-lasting memories in our minds. This is why a lot of sensory information can trigger memories in people.
EXAMPLEFor instance, the smell of smoke can automatically trigger a memory of camping trips when you were a child.
This explains why memories have very strong emotions attached to them. If you remember, for example, a traumatic event from your childhood, you can still feel those same kinds of emotions because the hippocampus plays that central role in attaching those memories and creating meaning out of them, so that they can last longer within the brain.
The earlier, more basic parts of brain development occurred in the hindbrain. These are the structures of the brain that are at the center or core of the brain and are connected to the spinal cord that goes out to the rest of the body.
This is also an area known as the brainstem, which includes the midbrain as well as the hindbrain.
The medulla oblongata is related to involuntary body processes--those functions that are important in keeping us alive. The medulla regulates functions like breathing, heart rate, digestion, and swallowing. You may think of them as reflexes, but they are not; a lot of reflexes are controlled by the spinal cord itself.
The pons transfers information between the medulla and the brain, as well as the rest of the brain structures, particularly in relation to things like sleep and arousal. It's kind of a messenger that also helps to regulate those types of important bodily processes, and this works in conjunction with the reticular formation, covered in the next section.
EXAMPLEThe RAS ensures that you are awake during certain periods of time, like when you're trying to study for a test late at night.