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Functions of the Cerebral Cortex

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Functions of the Cerebral Cortex

How are we able to speak, think, or perceive the world? What portion of our brain has such a large job to compute all this information? The answer is - the cerebral cortex portion of the brain, and it makes up for 85 percent of your brain weight! Let's explore why it is so important both in size and function.

  • What is the cerebral cortex?
  • What are the functional regions of the cerebral cortex?
  • What are motor functions of the cerebral cortex?
  • What are sensory functions of the cerebral cortex?

The Cerebral Cortex: Explanation

Within our brain are several different systems that allow for the multitude of functions that our brain is capable of. One of these important components is the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex has a thin layer of a fabric-like area of the brain consisting of numerous interconnected neural cells. The purpose of the cerebral cortex is to process the massive amount of information that bombards our senses constantly.

Functional Regions of the Cerebral Cortex

Let's take a moment to understand the structure of the cerebral cortex and how it is composed. If we open the skull to take a look, our first impression may be that we see a wrinkly walnut-like mass inside. The cerebral cortex is in charge of up to 23 billion nerve cells and 300 trillion synaptic connections (Myers, 2014). Speaking to these neuron cells are the glial cells. Their primary focus is to protect and communicate with other cells. Also, they have an important role in our ability to learn and think.

Functions of the Cerebral Cortex, brain that looks like a walnut, StudySmarterWalnut brain, flaticon.com.

Each hemisphere's cortex has four lobes divided by fissures (or folds). These four lobes are the frontal, parietal, occipital, and temporal. What does each one do?

Cerebral Cortex Lobes

Frontal lobes - making plans and judgments, speaking, and muscle movements.

Temporal lobes - receive information from the opposite ear.

Parietal lobes - receive information from touch.

Occipital lobes - receive information from our visual fields.

Also, another part of the cerebral cortex concerned with the sense of smell is the so-called olfactory cortex.

Motor Functions of the Cerebral Cortex

In 1870, German physicians Gustav Fritsch and Eduard Hitzig decided to zap a few places in the brain to see what would happen. They discovered that when they sent an electric stimulus to the back of the frontal lobe, it created an involuntary movement. There was also the realization that when the right side of the cortex was stimulated, it would create movement on the left side of the body, and the same was for the opposite. This was the discovery of the motor cortex.

Functions of the Cerebral Cortex, motor cortex mapping, StudySmarterMotor cortex functioning. wikimedia commons.

Motor Cortex

Once there was an understanding that a brain does not have sensory receptors, this opened up the possibility of much more discovery. Otfrid Foerster and Wilder Penfield used this to their advantage and began creating experiments that would help map out the motor cortex. Foerster and Penfield were able to stimulate portions of the motor cortex, which allowed them to learn that each motor cortex area had a specific job. For example, when stimulated, particular areas could create movement in the thumb. There was also a new understanding that the motor cortex sends messages outwardly in response to stimuli.

Brain-Computer Interfaces

Learning this plethora of information has opened doors to multitudes of possible further research that could help patients who have suffered strokes or have had other types of damage to the cortex. With the creation of brain-computer interfaces, researchers can now match brain signals. What does this mean?

Functions of the Cerebral Cortex, a microchip that can be implanted in the brain, StudySmarter

Brain-computer interfaces, flaticon.com

Now, it is possible to create neural prosthetics for patients who have had severe neural damage. Now, a stroke survivor can use brain-computer interfaces to move a robotic hand or robotic arms. The first such case was a 25-year-old man implanted with a tiny microchip in his cortex. This allowed him to play video games or even draw shapes on a corresponding computer screen (Myers, 2014).

Functions of the Cerebral Cortex Lobes

Let's dive deeper into other aspects of the functioning of the cerebral cortex

Association Areas

All the other cortex areas that were not mentioned are still essential and used for our daily brain activity. The difference here is that these larger areas, if stimulated, would not result in an outward response. These larger areas of the brain are busy with higher thinking and functions. We call these the association areas of the brain, and they are located in all four lobes. Because of this large area, it is not easily mapped in comparison to the cortexes, such as the auditory cortex and the somatosensory cortex.

Although the association areas are not mapped or organized as well as other areas, their importance is just as vital. If there is damage, like most brain areas, the effects (biologically and psychologically) can be detrimental to a person. A great example of this is the very known story of Phineas Gage.

Phineas Gage

In the case of Phineas Gage, there was significant damage to his prefrontal cortex. Phineas had a terrible accident resulting in an iron rod through his left cheek and out of the top of his skull. If damaged, the prefrontal cortex can change a person's personality and remove inhibitions, which just so happened to be the area that was damaged for Phineas. While he could sit right back up and healed seemingly well, there was a very obvious change. It was reported that his behavior became irritable and profane. His memories and functions seemed untouched. However, his personality had changed entirely. Since then, there have been other accounts of the same changes in personality for those who have had a damaged prefrontal cortex.

This example is one of many that show the absolute necessity of association areas. While not neatly organized into tiny brain areas, association areas all have higher functioning jobs within our brains.

Sensory Functions of the Cerebral Cortex

A motor cortex sends messages outwardly. Guess what part receives messages? The somatosensory cortex portion of the cerebral cortex. Penfield also understood that this cortex area was in charge of receiving information from skin senses and movement of body parts. This area was named the somatosensory cortex.

Somatosensory Cortex

Penfield realized that when he stimulated certain areas of the somatosensory cortex, the person reported feeling as though someone or something was touching them (for example, on their cheek). He also learned that if the area being stimulated is hyper-sensitive, which means that a larger portion of the somatosensory cortex is devoted to it. A common example is a super-sensitive area, the lips. The lips are very sensitive in comparison to our thumbs.

Touch is not the only stimulation that sends messages to our cerebral cortex. For example, our auditory cortex is the brain area that allows us to receive information in the form of sounds. Sounds traveling to your ears are processed by the opposite side of your auditory cortex (the left ear hears the sound. Therefore, the right auditory cortex is the area it is processed).

Functions of the Cerebral Cortex - Key takeaways

  • The cerebral cortex has a thin layer of a fabric-like area of the brain consisting of numerous interconnected neural cells.
  • The purpose of the cerebral cortex is to process the mass amount of information that bombards our senses constantly.
  • Speaking to these neuron cells are the glial cells. Their primary focus is to protect and communicate with other cells. They also have an important role in our ability to learn and think.
  • Each hemisphere's cortex has four lobes divided by fissures (or folds).
    • Frontal lobe - making plans and judgments, speaking, and muscle movements.
    • Temporal lobes - receive information from the opposite ear.
    • Parietal lobes - receive information from touch.
    • Occipital lobes - receive information from our visual fields.

References

  1. Myers, D. G. (2014). Myers’ Psychology for AP (Second ed.). Worth Publishers.

Frequently Asked Questions about Functions of the Cerebral Cortex

The function of the cerebral cortex is to process the massive amount of information that bombards our senses constantly. 

The function of the frontal lobe is to make plans and judgments, speak, and conduct muscle movements.

The function of the temporal lobe is to receive information from the opposite ear.

The occipital lobe receives information from our visual fields.

The part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for smell is the olfactory cortex. 

Final Functions of the Cerebral Cortex Quiz

Question

The cerebral cortex has a thin layer of a fabric-like area of the brain consisting of numerous ______.

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Answer

interconnected neural cells.

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Question

The purpose of the _____ is to process the massive amount of information that bombards our senses constantly.

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Answer

cerebral cortex

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Question

Their primary focus is to protect and communicate with other cells. They also have an important role in the ability to learn and think.

Show answer

Answer

glial cells 

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Question

Each hemisphere's cortex has ____ lobes which are divided by fissures (or folds).


Show answer

Answer

four

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Question

These four lobes are the ____

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Answer

frontal, parietal, occipital, and temporal lobes.

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Question

____ - making plans and judgments, speaking, and muscle movements.


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Answer

Frontal lobes 

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Question

______ - receive information from the opposite ear.


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Answer

Temporal lobes

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Question

______ - receive information from touch.


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Answer

Parietal lobes

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Question

____ - receive information from our visual fields.


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Answer

Occipital lobes

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Question

With the creation of ______, researchers are now able to match brain signals.

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Answer

brain-computer interfaces

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Question

______ is in charge of receiving information from skin senses and movement of body parts.

Show answer

Answer

Somatosensory cortex

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Question

Larger areas of the brain are busy with higher thinking and functions. These areas are called the ____ of the brain and are found in all four lobes.

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Answer

 association areas

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Question

When this area of the cerebral cortex is stimulated, the person may report feeling touched. Where is it?

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Answer

somatosensory cortex

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Question

The motor cortex _____ messages. 

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Answer

receives 

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Question

The somatosensory cortex ______ messages.

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Answer

sends

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Question

Fill in the blank: The cerebral cortex is in charge of up to ___ billion nerve cells and ____ trillion synaptic connections (Myers, 2014). 

***There are TWO blanks 

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Answer

23

300

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Question

What type of cells protect and communicate with other cells as well as play an important role in our ability to learn and think? 

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Answer

Glial Cells 

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Question

Which of the following is NOT one of the four lobes of the brain? 

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Answer

Cerebral 

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Question

What part of the cerebral cortex is concerned with the sense of smell? 

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Answer

The Olfactory Cortex 

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Question

True or False: In 1870, German physicians Gustav Fritsch and Eduard Hitzig decided to zap a few places in the brain to see what would happen. 

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Answer

True 

Show question

Question

In the case of Phineas Gage, which cortex received damage? 

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Answer

The Prefrontal Cortex 

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Question

You and your friend are trying to remember the different lobes of the brain. She says that this lobe receives information from our visual fields. 

Which lobe is she describing? 

Show answer

Answer

Occipital Lobe

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Question

You and your friend are trying to remember the different lobes of the brain. She says that this lobe receives information from touch. 

Which lobe is she describing? 

Show answer

Answer

Parietal Lobe 

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Question

You and your friend are trying to remember the different lobes of the brain. She says that this lobe receives information from the opposite ear. 

Which lobe is she describing? 

Show answer

Answer

Temporal Lobes 

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Question

You and your friend are trying to remember the different lobes of the brain. She says that this lobe is in charge of making plans and judgments, speaking, and muscle movements.  

Which lobe is she describing? 

Show answer

Answer

Frontal Lobe 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: 

Each hemisphere's cortex has _____ lobes divided by fissures (or folds).  

Show answer

Answer

Four 

Show question

Question

True or False: Sounds traveling to your ears are processed by the opposite side of your auditory cortex (the left ear hears the sound. Therefore, the right auditory cortex is the area it is processed).  

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

Which cortex allows us to receive information in the form of sounds? 

Show answer

Answer

The Auditory Cortex 

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Question

If you hear a noise through your left ear, which auditory cortex is processing that sound? 

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Answer

The Right Auditory Cortex 

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Question

Who understood that the somatosensory cortex was in charge of receiving information from skin senses and movement of body part? 

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Answer

Wilder Penfield 

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