How the Brain Works

Want to know what goes on inside that beautiful brain of yours? The short answer is: A LOT. This highly complex organ comprises several highly specialized parts. Though each part has a primary function, some parts play several roles, making some functions a product of many parts working together in harmony. Your memory, for instance, is built by the hippocampus, but organized by amygdala. The connection, communication and cooperation between these parts are what makes your brain such an efficient and amazing machine.

The Hindbrain – a.k.a. Reptilian Brain

Our most primitive piece of brain anatomy is responsible for basic functions (i.e. breathing, heartbeat) and primal instincts (i.e. survival, dominance, mating). It includes the following parts:

Spinal Cord: This tubular bundle of nervous tissue (surrounded by bones called vertebrae) serves as the main pathway between the brain and the central nervous system.

Medulla Oblongata: The lower part of the brainstem (the part of the brain connected to the spinal cord) controls breathing, digestion, heart rate, and other functions that you don’t need to think about (a.k.a. autonomic functions). It also relays nerve signals going to and from the brain.

Pons: Located on the brainstem, the pons coordinates communication between the two brain hemispheres. It relays sensory information to the brain and plays a role in arousal, control of autonomic functions, and sleep.

Cerebellum: Located at the bottom of the brain, the cerebellum regulates and coordinates movement, posture and balance. It also plays a part in the learning of movement.

The Limbic System – a.k.a. The “Emotional Brain”

The Limbic System is where our feelings, memory, and value judgements originate. What we pay attention to, as well as our spontaneity and creativity levels, are also determined here. The Limbic System includes the following parts:

Amygdala: This almond-shaped structure produces and processes emotions such as fear, anger and pleasure. It also helps out with memory, determining which memories are stored in the brain and where.

Hippocampus: You have the hippocampus to thank for all those happy childhood memories; it’s responsible for classifying information and forming the memories that go into long-term storage. It also plays a role in interpreting incoming nerve signals and spatial relationships.

Hypothalamus: This super-productive structure works with your pituitary gland to monitor and control a slew of bodily functions. These functions include your circadian rhythms (your daily sleep/wake cycle), homeostasis (your body’s way of maintaining internal equilibrium), appetite and thirst. It also participates in emotions, autonomic functions and motor functions.

Thalamus: The thalamus is THE relay station in the brain. Most of the sensory signals, auditory (sound), visual, somatosensory (from your skin and internal organs), pass through on their way to other parts of the brain for processing. It also plays a function in motor control.

The Cerebral Cortex

The cerebral cortex is the largest part of the brain, it occupies up to 2/3 of the brain space. And no wonder… this is where our brains packs the power to develop language, abstract thought, consciousness and imagination. The cortex divides into two hemispheres. The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body and is involved in artistic, spatial and musical thought processes. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body and highlights more linear, rational and verbal aspects. The cortex further divides into four lobes:

The Frontal Lobe serves as your body’s command center and is responsible for complex functions such as reasoning, problem solving, judgement, and impulse control. (It happens to be the last part of the brain to develop when we are young adults, which may explain some of the reckless decisions of our youth!) This lobe also manages our higher emotions such as empathy and altruism. This lobe is also involved in motor control and memory.

The Parietal Lobe integrates sensory information from various parts of the body, helping you to navigate your world. Pain and sensation are processed here, since this lobe contains the primary area of the somatosensory cortex (skin and internal organs). It is also involved in object orientation, movement, recognition and speech.

The Temporal Lobe controls auditory processing and language recognition and comprehension. It contains the hippocampus and amygdala, which are responsible for the creation and organization of our long-term memories.

The Occipital Lobe controls visual sensation and processing, and contains the primary area of the visual cortex.