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7.3: The Cerebral Cortex Creates Consciousness And Thinking

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    All animals have adapted to their environments by developing abilities that help them survive. Some animals have hard shells, others run extremely fast, and some have acute hearing. Human beings do not have any of these particular characteristics, but we do have one big advantage over other animals—we are very, very smart.

    You might think that we should be able to determine the intelligence of an animal by looking at the ratio of the animal’s brain weight to the weight of its entire body. But this does not really work. The elephant’s brain is one thousandth of its weight, but the whale’s brain is only one ten-thousandth of its body weight. On the other hand, although the human brain is one sixtieth of its body weight, the mouse’s brain represents one fortieth of its body weight. Despite these comparisons, elephants do not seem 10 times smarter than whales, and humans definitely seem smarter than mice.

    The key to the advanced intelligence of humans is not found in the size of our brains. What sets humans apart from other animals is our larger cerebral cortex—the outer bark- like layer of our brain that allows us to so successfully use language, acquire complex skills, create tools, and live in social groups (Gibson, 2002). In humans, the cerebral cortex is wrinkled and folded, rather than smooth as it is in most other animals. This creates a much greater surface area and size, and allows increased capacities for learning, remembering, and thinking. The folding of the cerebral cortex is referred to as corticalization.

    Although the cortex is only about one tenth of an inch thick, it makes up more than 80% of the brain’s weight. The cortex contains about 20 billion nerve cells and 300 trillion synaptic connections (de Courten-Myers, 1999). Supporting all these neurons are billions more glial cells (glia), cells that surround and link to the neurons, protecting them, providing them with nutrients, and absorbing unused neurotransmitters. The glia come in different forms and have different functions. For instance, the myelin sheath surrounding the axon of many neurons is a type of glial cell. The glia are essential partners of neurons, without which the neurons could not survive or function (Miller, 2005).

    The cerebral cortex is divided into two hemispheres, and each hemisphere is divided into four lobes, each separated by folds known as fissures. If we look at the cortex starting at the front of the brain and moving over the top (see Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)), we see first the frontal lobe (behind the forehead), which is responsible primarily for thinking, planning, memory, and judgment. Following the frontal lobe is the parietal lobe, which extends from the middle to the back of the skull and which is responsible primarily for processing information about touch. Then comes the occipital lobe, at the very back of the skull, which processes visual information. Finally, in front of the occipital lobe (pretty much between the ears) is the temporal lobe, responsible primarily for hearing and language.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The two hemispheres. The brain is divided into two hemispheres (left and right), each of which has four lobes (temporal, frontal, occipital, and parietal). Furthermore, there are specific cortical areas that control different processes. [“Two Hemispheres” by University of Minnesota is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.]

    Fritsch and Hitzig also found that the movement that followed the brain stimulation only occurred when they stimulated a specific arch-shaped region that runs across the top of the brain from ear to ear, just at the front of the parietal lobe (see Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). Fritsch and Hitzig had discovered the motor cortex, the part of the cortex that controls and executes movements of the body by sending signals to the cerebellum and the spinal cord. More recent research has mapped the motor cortex even more fully, by providing mild electronic stimulation to different areas of the motor cortex in fully conscious patients while observing their bodily responses (because the brain has no sensory receptors, these patients feel no pain). As you can see in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\), this research has revealed that the motor cortex is specialized for providing control over the body, in the sense that the parts of the body that require more precise and finer movements, such as the face and the hands, also are allotted the greatest amount of cortical space.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The sensory cortex and the motor cortex. The portion of the sensory and motor cortex devoted to receiving messages that control specific regions of the body is determined by the amount of fine movement that area is capable of performing. Thus the hand and fingers have as much area in the cerebral cortex as does the entire trunk of the body. [“Sensory Cortex and Motor Cortex” by University of Minnesota is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.]

    Just as the motor cortex sends out messages to the specific parts of the body, the somatosensory cortex, an area just behind and parallel to the motor cortex at the back of the frontal lobe, receives information from the skin’s sensory receptors and the movements of different body parts. Again, the more sensitive the body region, the more area is dedicated to it in the sensory cortex. Our sensitive lips, for example, occupy a large area in the sensory cortex, as do our fingers and genitals.

    Other areas of the cortex process other types of sensory information. The visual cortex is the area located in the occipital lobe (at the very back of the brain) that processes visual information (see Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). If you were stimulated in the visual cortex, you would see flashes of light or color, and perhaps you remember having had the experience of “seeing stars” when you were hit in, or fell on, the back of your head. The temporal lobe, located on the lower side of each hemisphere, contains the auditory cortex, which is responsible for hearing and language (see Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). The temporal lobe also processes some visual information, providing us with the ability to name the objects around us (Martin, 2007).

    As you can see in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\), the motor and sensory areas of the cortex account for a relatively small part of the total cortex. The remainder of the cortex is made up of association areas in which sensory and motor information is combined and associated with our stored knowledge. These association areas are the places in the brain that are responsible for most of the things that make human beings seem human. The association areas are involved in higher mental functions, such as learning, thinking, planning, judging, moral reflecting, figuring, and spatial reasoning.

    This page titled 7.3: The Cerebral Cortex Creates Consciousness And Thinking is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kate Votaw.

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