The Mechanics of The Brain
By SUE BOS
The brain, an organ about the size
of a grapefruit, is composed of
3 primary parts:
the brain stem or “reptilian brain”,
the limbic system or “mammalian brain”,
and the cerebral cortex, the “executive branch” of the brain.
While it is easy to look at the brain by studying these three component parts and their functions, it is important to understand that the brain is a complex system.
While certain areas of the brain are specialized for certain operations, all the component parts of the brain work together as an integrally related system.
All information enters the brain in the form of sensory input that is delivered to the brain via the spinal cord, the superhighway of the nervous system. Information enters the brain through the brain stem and travels through the limbic system on its way to the cerebral cortex. In the cerebral cortex the brain puts together and makes sense of what the senses perceive.
It is here that conscious thought and higher level learning happens. The brain stem and limbic system act as both filters and conduits for the sensory input, and, what happens in these parts of the brain as information is traveling through them, plays a significant role in determining what learning and thinking ultimately occurs in the cerebral cortex. It is important to understand how these systems function and impact sensory input in the learning process.
The brain stem
the gateway to the brain, is where basic body functions for survival are handled. Breathing, heart rate and instinctual body responses are all regulated here. In addition to this vital role, the brain stem also serves as a kind of “town crier” to the higher parts of the brain. As sensory information enters the brain, the brain stem alerts the rest of the brain that information is coming through. The brain stem is the “alertness center” of the brain system. It tells the brain that it is time to pay attention.
The limbic system
is where emotions step into the picture and play a significant role in the passage of sensory input through the brain. Operating as a climate control center and a mediator of emotions, the limbic system plays a primary role in determining exactly what pieces of incoming sensory stimuli the brain can and will pay attention to. Like the brain stem, no thinking happens here, but in its function as a determiner of what the brain pays attention to, the component parts of the limbic system play a significant role in regulating memory and learning functions. The thalamus serves as a filter of sensory data by regulating emotions; the hippocampus is primarily concerned with memory and providing a meaningful context for our emotions; and the amygdala is concerned with connecting memory and emotion, a process of providing an emotional context for information and memory. Physical body functions which can be impacted by emotions are also regulated here. They include temperature, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels.
The cerebral cortex
is where thinking happens. The cortex is the wrinkly outer layer of the brain, the “gray matter”. It is divided into two sections, each of which cover one of the two cerebral hemispheres. The left hemisphere controls the muscles on the right side of the body, and the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body. The left hemisphere is primarily concerned with detail, and logical, analytical and sequential functions, while the right hemisphere tends to focus on more creative, artistic, whole picture functions. Both hemispheres are connected through the corpus collosum, a thick bundle of neurons that allows for efficient transfer of information from one hemisphere to the other. The hemispheres are further divided into four major areas or lobes: frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal. All four are specialized for certain brain functions such as problem-solving in the frontal lobes, sensory processing in the parietal lobe, visual processing the in occipital lobe, and hearing and language in the temporal lobe. These component parts of the cerebral cortex allow us to put together and comprehend what the senses perceive. This is where conscious thought and active learning take place.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sue Bos is a veteran teacher at Guilford Central School in Vermont. She teaches 7/8 Science. Community Works Institute asked Sue to reflect on and compile her work investigating newer research on the brain. Her investigations are significant for their direct connections to her own classroom teaching. Several of the pieces included here originally appeared in Community Works Journal.
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