Getting Your Head Around Your Head
Common questions we ask ourselves, with almost no hope of finding the answers. Us humans love knowing it all and sometimes we act so insane, we believe there must be a deep-routed reason behind our actions and behaviours. While the alignment of the stars, the control of a greater being or buzzfeed quiz results may provide some convincing explanations, a lot of these answers can be found by looking inside yourself… anatomically. Sat inside your head is the master controller of both your body and your mind. On the road of life, the driver buckled-in firmly behind the wheel is your brain. While there are times when your brain is open to suggestions about which route to take, the majority of life's journeys feel like you are gagged, bound and forced into the boot of the car with your brain on autopilot; running red lights and reversing down the motorway. Although the brain still holds many mysteries (like honestly, why did I just reply 'I'm fine' to someone saying 'Hello'?), science has allowed us to answer some questions about what makes you ‘you’.
For all its incredible abilities, the brain is not much to look at. If apple could give it an iOS update, it would be sleek, shiny and uniform (but still no USB ports). Although the brain may look like a big pile of squishiness, it can actually be separated into 3 distinct parts.
‘What made me react that way to certain a situation?’
‘Why can I remember those song lyrics from 10 years ago but not the information for my test tomorrow?’
‘How does the smell of sun cream remind me of being burnt to a crisp on the beach in Spain?’
The Brain Stem
The brain stem may be tucked away under the rest of the brain but it is the main interface between your brain and your body. It connects brain regions which are in charge of muscle movement to your spinal cord, which sends the information to the correct body location. You can think of the brain stem as a wifi router, with your brain being a computer and your spinal cord relaying messages you send to many other terminals all in one go. If the wifi is disconnected, your message would stay restricted to your own computer and be unable to make further communication.
The brainstem can be referred to as the ‘reptilian brain’ as it is a similar structure to the brain of our ancient scaly ancestors. This structure evolved around 320 million years ago and allowed vertebrates to emerge from the depths of the ocean to walk on land. It has stood the test of time as it is responsible for functions such as breathing, blood pressure control, heart rate and alertness. Pretty important survival skills...
The cerebellum sits on top of your brain stem and plays an important role in coordination and movement. If anybody points out your clumsy behaviour or inability to quite perfect the moves on the dance floor, you can partially put the blame on your cerebellum.
The cerebellum is responsible for co-ordinating muscle movements to produce a specific action, such as successfully hitting a tennis ball, and controls your balance. You may think of balance as a stable and still function but in order to stay poised, balance requires constant signalling between your muscles and your cerebellum; making sure you don’t go flying with every step. The cerebellum also co-ordinates your eye movements, allowing you to quickly flick and focus between your phone and drama unfolding in the latest episode of Love Island.
In addition to these common, everyday actions, the cerebellum helps your body learn movements over time. The more you practice a motion, like riding a bike, the easier it becomes as you are ‘training’ your cerebellum. Repeating an action is like necking a protein shake to the cerebellum, strengthening connections between associated muscle groups and making the motion easier to perform every time. So even now, you can hop on a bike and go due to the many days of falling off, ruining your clothes with grass stains and getting back behind the handle bars.
The Cerebral Cortex
The cerebral cortex is what you think of when you imagine a brain. It is the largest part packed with folds and indents on top of the brainstem and cerebellum. This section is what makes us distinctly ‘human’ and sets us apart from our early ancestors and other species. We all have two sides to our cerebral cortex, a left side and right side, which are almost mirror-images of each other. An interesting fact about the cerebral cortex is the right side controls the left side of your body and vice versa. This occurs due to the nerves from the right brain ‘crossing over’ to the left side of the body at the top of the spinal cord; an event common to most species with a backbone.
So why is the cerebral cortex covered in all them folds? Well, these structures, known as sulci (the grooves) and gyri (the bumps), allow a lot more brain to be packed inside our skulls. Think about folding a table cloth; you can fold it up so it appears much smaller than it is. This process is the same for our brain, meaning the size of our unfolded brain is much bigger than what we see. With great area comes great responsibility, as the cerebral cortex is the site of complex behaviour and ‘higher functions’, such as thinking in the future and personality. This region has so many roles, it can be split into 4 distinct regions of its own.
The Four Lobes of the Cerebral Cortex
The frontal lobe is the largest region of the cerebral cortex and contains the most folds. This implies it is the most complex area, and its functions live up to this reputation. The area is associated with abstract thinking, personality, emotional expression and problem solving. It would have been the region of brain being used when Einstein figured out the theory of relativity or when Shakespeare crafted Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech. Many other species do not possess a frontal cortex as complex as ours, therefore, some regions are not essential to survival. However, these regions have allowed us to technologically out-run every other being on the planet.
Towards the midline of the brain, the frontal lobe contains the primary motor cortex. This region maps out the muscles of your entire body, with each small section being responsible for specific movements. Rather than the size of these regions being proportional to the size of your muscles, they are sized based on complexity of the target muscle. For example, the region responsible for thigh movement is much smaller than the region responsible for hand movement. This is because your hand can perform many fine movements, such as writing, whereas your thigh can pretty much just flex and stretch.
So there you have it, a little introduction to the thing which controls your every move, thought and feeling. Coming up will be more posts on specific brain regions and details on how they perform their function, as well as the main cells in your brain which do a lot of hard work transmitting and interpretting signals.
If your head is spinning with questions or curiosities, check out some of the links below (especially the 3D brain) or contact me and my brain will do it's best to come up with an answer!