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Day 7 of 14 - The mind is what the brain does...

"He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice." - Albert Einstein

This is #7


While studying habits and behavior over the course of the last six months I also found it more and more interesting as of late to try and understand how the brain actually works.

It's common knowledge that the brain is divided into several areas with specific functions. In this article I'm going to list the different areas of the brain and their purpose, but I'm also sharing what I've learned about certain myths regarding our brains.

To understand how our minds work, we have to take a closer look at the structure of the brain. Generally speaking, our brain consists of older structures which are smaller, simpler and more generic in their functionality with newer structures build on top.

Myth #1: We only use about 10% of our brain capacity... Since the brain constantly takes up to 20% of the bodies energy consumption (at least while we're awake), it would be a terrible waste to not use it's full capacity. Even the slightest movement of our fingers triggers activity in almost each and every part of your brain!

The oldest part of your brain is the brain stem. It's the central core of the brain where the spinal cord enters the skull. One of it's purposes is to connect the brain with your CNS - the central nervous system. The CNS is the body's command system. Our body's major decisions are being made through the CNS. The CNS is connected with the PNS, the peripheral nervous system. The PNS consists of sensory neurons that gather information and report it back to the CNS.

On top of the brain stem sits the medulla. It is responsible for basic functions like breathing and our heartbeat. It contains the cardiac, respiratory, vomiting and vasomotor centers and therefore deals with the autonomic functions of breathing, heart rate and blood pressure as well as the sleep wake cycle.

Perched on the medulla is the pons. The pons main functions include the regulation of respiration, controls involuntary actions, sensory roles in hearing, equilibrium and taste, and in facial sensations such as touch and pain, as well as motor roles in eye movement, facial expressions, chewing, swallowing, and the secretion of saliva and tears. It also helps to relay information between the cerebellum and the cerebral cortex.

Inside the brain stem you can find the reticular formation, a finger shaped nerve network that plays a crucial role in maintaining behavioral arousal (the non-sexy type) and consciousness. It's functions include pain modulation, sleep and habituation, which is the process of ignoring repetitive, meaningless stimuli while remaining sensitive to others (one of my favorite subjects as of late).

The egg shaped structure on top of the brain stem is called thalamus. The thalamus takes in sensory information such seeing, hearing, touching and tasting. It also relays this sensory information and therefor acts as a hub between subcortical parts of the brain and the cerebral cortex.

The cerebellum, also known as "little brain", makes up the last part of our "old" brain. It sits at the bottom of the brain stem and is responsible for non-verbal learning and memory, perception of time, modulation of emotions, it controls voluntary movement such as dancing or swinging that golf club and the part of our brain that typically gets impaired under the influence of alcohol and other drugs.

Between the old structures of your brain and the newer ones is the limbic system. It consists of the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the hippocampus.

The two Lima bean sized clusters of neurons called "amygdala" are responsible for memory consolidation, fear and anger. The hypothalamus keeps our bodies steady, it regulates our body temperature, circadian rhythm, hunger and it helps to govern the endocrine system - the chemical messenger system regulating the secretion of hormones inside our body - especially the pituitary gland, which regulates several physiological processes including stress, growth, reproduction, and lactation. The hippocampus is central to learning and memory. If it is damaged we typically loose our ability to build new memories (anterograde amnesia) or loose the memories we've already made (retrograde amnesia).

The newest part of our brain is called cerebrum. The cerebrum oversees our abilities to think, speak and perceive. It is responsible for 85% of your brain weight and separated into two hemispheres. The left hemisphere is mainly responsible for logical processes like language production while the right hemisphere steers creative functions. The two hemispheres are connected by the corpus callosum.

Myth #2: We have dominant sides... While it is true that some functions are related to one of the hemispheres while some are related to the other, both sides are constantly active and deeply intertwined.

The cerebral cortex as depicted above - a thin layer of over 20 billion interconnected neurons - is divided into four lobes and separated by folds or fissures.

1. Frontal Lobe: responsible for speaking, planning, judging, abstract thinking and other personality aspects

2. Parietal Lobe: responsible for our sense of touch and body position

3. Occipital Lobe: responsible for seeing and processing information related to sight

4. Temporal Lobe: responsible for comprehension, sound and speech

Myth #3: Your personality is linked to the shape of your head... Phrenologists believe that the shape of your skull is linked to certain traits. It's a Pseudo-Science. It's not true.

Within the lobes we can find more specific parts with different functions, such as the motor cortex at the rear of the frontal lobe that controls movements and sends messages from the brain to the body and the somato-sensory cortex which sits right behind the motor cortex that processes incoming sensations.

The rest of the grey matter is made up of so called "association areas". These are related to higher mental functions, e.g. remembering, thinking, learning and speaking. It is not clear which areas are responsible for what reaction exactly, so one can generally say that the association areas deal with interpreting and integrating sensory input and link them up with memories. They prevail throughout all for lobes and damage to different areas can cause very different results to our behavior.

Scientists are constantly finding out more about our brain and how it works. One of the latest discoveries are so called mirror neurons, a previously unknown type of brain cells that fire when performing certain actions or when observing another one doing so. They help us to repeat certain tasks and copy the behavior of others.

Finding out more about the brain and how different areas function and communicate with each other lead me to a simple conclusions: Psychology and biology are fundamentally intertwined. Therefor, the mind is what the brain does.


If you are interested in further information about how our brain works and how different aspects of our behavior are related to different physiological aspects of the brain, please follow the links below:

"The Brain made simple" website:

"The Anatomy of the Brain" from the website of the Mayfield Clinic of Cincinnati, Ohio:

Hank Green's Channel "Crash Course" and the series on Psychology:


And - as per usual - since many great books have been written on the brain and related topics I want to recommend and link some of them here:

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (Amazon Affiliate Link:

The Brain by David Eagleman (Amazon Affiliate Link:

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker (Amazon Affiliate Link:

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