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The human brain.

The human brain is the center of the central nervous system in humans as well as the primary control center for the peripheral nervous system.

The brain controls "lower" or involuntary activities such as heartbeat, respiration, and digestion - these are known as autonomic functions. The brain also controls "higher" order, conscious activities, such as thought, reasoning, and abstraction. The human brain is generally regarded as more capable of these higher order activities than any other species.


  1. Human encephalization is especially pronounced in the neocortex, the most complex portion of the cerebral cortex. Singular among those of all animals, the human brain possesses the largest and most massive neocortex. Humans thus enjoy unique neural capacities despite the fact that much of the human neuroarchitecture resembles that of more primitive species. Basic systems that alert the nervous system to stimuli, sense events in the environment, and monitor and maintain the internal environment of the body (homeostasis) are similar in some ways to those of the most basic vertebrates. Human consciousness involves both the extended capacity of the modern neocortex in particular as well as profoundly developed prototypical structures of the brain stem. But the human brain is unique, in part, because it relies on some million billion synaptic connections, making it an extremely intricate and densely connected neural network.


Sagittal slice from a MRI scan of a human brain. Click here for an animated sequence of slices.

The normal adult human brain typically weighs between 1 and 1.5 kg (3 lb) and has an average volume of 1,600 cm³ (98 in³). An average male brain has approximately 4% more cells and 100 grams more brain tissue than an average female brain. However, both sexes have similar brain weight to body weight ratios (She Brains - He Brains)[1]. The mature brain consumes some 20% of the energy used by the body, while the developing brain of an infant consumes around 60%. Such heavy energy usage generates large quantities of heat, which must be continually removed to prevent brain damage.

A bulbous cerebral cortex is composed of convoluted grey matter internally supported by deep brain white matter. The two hemispheres of the brain are separated by a prominent central fissure. A well-developed cerebellum is visible at the back of the brain. Brain stem structures are almost completely enveloped by the cerebellum and telencephalon, with only the medulla oblongata visible as it merges with the spinal cord.

The blood supply to the brain involves several arteries that enter the brain and communicate in a circle called the circle of Willis. Blood is then drained from the brain through a network of sinuses that drain into the right and left internal jugular veins.

The brain is suspended in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) which also fills spaces called ventricles inside it. The dense fluid protects the brain and spinal cord from shock; a brain that weighs 1,500 g in air weighs only 50 g when suspended in CSF (Livingston, 1965). Fluid movement within the brain is limited by the blood-brain barrier, brain-cerebrospinal fluid barrier, and the blood-cerebrospinal fluid barrier.

The brain is easily damaged by compression, so the fluid surrounding the central nervous system must be maintained at a constant volume. Humans are estimated to produce about 500 ml or more of cerebrospinal fluid each day, with only about 15 percent of the body's estimated 150 ml of CSF at any given time located in the ventricles of the brain. The remainder fills the subarachnoid space which separates the soft tissues of the brain and spinal cord from the hard surrounding bones (skull and vertebrae). Elevated levels of CSF are associated with traumatic brain injury and a pediatric disease known as hydrocephalus. Increased fluid pressure can result in permanent brain injury and death.

The exceptional size of the human brain resulted in some anatomical compromises. At birth, an infant's skull is as large as it can be without causing undue peril to the mother and child. However, prior to the intervention of modern medicine, childbirth was a dangerous event that frequently resulted in the death of the mother. The difficulty experienced by humans in giving birth is nearly unique in the animal kingdom. Female humans have large pelvic openings to accommodate the birth of large-headed children, but the larger this opening, the more the ability of the mother to run is compromised.

At birth, the human skull is rather soft, and it deforms somewhat during its passage through the birth canal, then recovers its shape. This allows it to expand to make room for the brain, which continues to grow, at the same rate as that of an unborn fetus, for an additional year. In all other animals the growth rate of the brain slows significantly at birth.


A human brain color-coded to show the four cerebral lobes and cerebellum.

The human brain is thought to be the source of the conscious, cognitive mind. The mind is the set of cognitive processes related to perception, interpretation, imagination, and memories, of which a person may or may not be aware. Beyond cognitive functions, the brain regulates autonomic processes related to essential body functions such as respiration and heartbeat.

Extended neocortical capacity allows humans some control over emotional behavior, but neural pathways between emotive centers of the brain stem and cerebral motor control areas are shorter than those connecting complex cognitive areas in the neocortex with incoming sensory information from the brain stem. Powerful emotional pathways can modulate spontaneous emotive expression regardless of attempts at cerebral self-control. Emotive stability in humans is associated with planning, experience, and an environment that is both stable and stimulating, especially during early developmental years.

The 19th century discovery of the primary motor cortex mapped to correspond with regions of the body led to popular belief that the brain was organized around a homunculus. A distorted figure drawn to represent the body's motor map in the prefrontal cortex was popularly recognized as the brain's homunculus, but function of the human brain is far more complex.

The human brain appears to have no localized center of conscious control. The brain seems to derive consciousness from interaction among numerous systems within the brain. Executive functions rely on cerebral activities, especially those of the frontal lobes, but redundant and complementary processes within the brain result in a diffuse assignment of executive control that can be difficult to attribute to any single locale.

Midbrain functions include routing, selecting, mapping, and cataloguing information, including information perceived from the environment and information that is remembered and processed throughout the cerebral cortex. Endocrine functions housed in the midbrain play a leading role in modulating arousal of the cortex and of autonomic systems.

Nerves from the brain stem complex where autonomic functions are modulated join nerves routing messages to and from the cerebrum in a bundle that passes through the spinal column to related parts of a body. Twelve pairs of cranial nerves, including some that innervate parts of the head, follow pathways from the medulla oblongata outside the spinal cord.

A definite description of the biological basis for consciousness so far eludes the best efforts of the current generation of researchers. But reasonable assumptions based on observable behaviors and on related internal responses have provided the basis for general classification of elements of consciousness and of likely neural regions associated with those elements. Researchers know people lose consciousness and regain it, they have identified partial losses of consciousness associated with particular neuropathologies and they know that certain conscious activities are impossible without particular neural structures.

Study of the brain

Picture of a human brain generated from MRI data

Although folklore about a 90% dormant human brain has proven scientifically unfounded, researchers until the mid 1990s focused on only a small portion of the brain in efforts to understand its computational capacity.

Grey matter, the thin layer of cells covering the cerebrum, was believed by most scholars to be the primary center of cognitive and conscious processing. White matter, the mass of glial cells that support the cerebral grey matter, was assumed to primarily provide nourishment, physical support, and connective pathways for the more functional cells on the cerebral surface. But research fueled by the interest of Dr. Marian Diamond in the glial structure of Albert Einstein's brain led to a line of research that offered strong evidence that glial cells serve a computational role beyond merely transmitting processed signals between more functional parts of the brain. In 2004, Scientific American published an article suggesting scientists in the early 21st century are only beginning to study the "other half of the brain."

For many millennia the function of the brain was unknown. Ancient Egyptians threw the brain away prior to the process of mummification. Ancient thinkers such as Aristotle imagined that mental activity took place in the heart. Greek scholars assumed correctly that the brain serves a role in cooling the body, but incorrectly presumed the brain to function as a sort of radiator, rather than as a thermostat as is now understood. The Alexandrian biologists Herophilos and Erasistratus were among the first to conclude that the brain was the seat of intelligence. Galen's theory that the brain's ventricles were the sites of thought and emotion prevailed until the work of the Renaissance anatomist Vesalius.

A slice of an MRI scan of the brain. Click here to view an animation of the scan from top to bottom.

The modern study of the brain and its functions is known as neuroscience. Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior. Neurology and psychiatry are both medical approaches to the study of the mind and its pathology or mental illness respectively.

The brain is now thought to be the organ responsible for the phenomena of consciousness, thought, and emotion. Studies of brain damage resulting from accidents led to the identification of specialized areas of the brain devoted to functions such as the processing of vision and audition. Neuroimaging has allowed the function of the living brain to be studied in detail without damaging the brain. New imaging techniques allowed blood flow within the brain to be studied in detail during a wide range of psychological tests. Functional neuroimaging such as functional magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography allows researchers to monitor activities of the brain as they occur (see also history of neuroimaging).

Molecular analysis of the brain has provided insight into some aspects of what the brain does as an organ, but not how it functions in higher-level processes. Further, the molecular and cell biological examination of brain pathology is hindered by the scarcity of appropriate samples for study, the (usual) inability to biopsy the brain from a living person suffering from a malady, and an incomplete description of the brain's microanatomy. With respect to the normal brain, comparative transcriptome analysis between the human and chimpanzee brain and between brain and liver (a common molecular baseline organ) has revealed specific and consistent differences in gene expression between human and chimpanzee brain and a general increase in the gene expression of many genes in humans as compared to chimpanzees. Furthermore, variations in gene expression in the cerebral cortex between individuals in either species is greater than between sub-regions of the cortex of a single individual[2].

In addition to pathological and imaging studies, the study of computational networks, largely in computer science, provided another means through which to understand neural processes. A body of knowledge developed for the production of electronic, mathematical computation of systems provided a basis for researchers to develop and refine hypotheses about the computational function of biological neural networks. The study of neural networks now involves study of both biological and artificial neural networks.

A new discipline of cognitive science has started to fuse the results of these investigations with observations from psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and computer science.

Recently the brain was used in bionics by several groups of researchers. In a particular example, a joint team of United States Navy researchers and Russian scientists from Nizhny Novgorod State University worked to develop an artificial analogue of olivocerebellar circuit, a part of the brain responsible for balance and limb movement. The researchers plan to use it to control Autonomous Underwater Vehicles.

Popular misconceptions

The following are some commonly held misconceptions of the mind and brain perpetuated through urban legends, mass media, and the promotion of dubious products to consumers (Sala, 1999). A number of practitioners of pseudoscience, New Age philosophies, and mystical or occult practices are known to use some of these ideas as a part of their belief systems (also see popular psychology).

  • The human brain is firm and grey: The fresh/living brain is actually very soft, jelly-like and deep red. They do not become firm and grey until they have been preserved with various chemicals/resins.
  • Humans use only 10% or less of their brain: Even though some mysteries of brain function persist, every part of the brain has a known function.
    • This misconception most likely arose from a misunderstanding (or misrepresentation in an advertisement) of neurological research in the late 1800s or early 1900s when reasearchers discovered that only about 10% of the neurons in the brain are firing at any given time.
    • If all of your neurons began firing at once you would not become smarter, but would instead suffer a seizure. In fact, studies have shown that the brains of more intelligent people are less active than the brains of less intelligent people when working on the same problems.
    • Some psychics continue to propagate this myth by asserting that the "unused" ninety percent of the human brain is capable of exhibiting psychic powers and can be trained to perform psychokinesis and extra-sensory perception.
    • A less literal interpretation of the statement is valid. It can be reasonably claimed that most people only use a very small fraction of the cognitive potential of their brain, even though all individual brain neurons are busily working. Various cultural inventions enable humans to better utilize their cognitive potential, such as reading, education, problem solving, critical thinking, etc.
  • Mental abilities are separated into the left and right cerebral hemispheres: Some mental functions such as speech and language tend to be localized to specific areas in one hemisphere. If one hemisphere is damaged at a very early age however, these functions can often be recovered in part or even in full by the other hemisphere. Other abilities such as motor control, memory, and general reasoning are spread equally across the two hemispheres. See lateralization of brain function.
  • Creativity can be easily developed using simple brainstorming/lateral thinking techniques.
  • Learning can be achieved more powerfully through subliminal techniques: Technically, information that is entirely subliminal cannot be perceived at all. The extent to which subliminal techniques can influence learning depends largely on what level of perception the techniques affect.
  • Hypnosis can lead to perfect recall of details: Not only is this not entirely true, an incompetent or deceptive hypnotist can actually implant memories of events that never occurred.

Brain enhancement

Various methods have been proposed to improve the cognitive performance of the human brain including pharmacological methods (nootropic drugs), electric stimulation (direct current polarization) and surgery. More advanced methods of brain enhancement may be possible in the future, perhaps including direct brain-computer interfaces. These proposed enhancements are a major focus of Transhumanism.

Comparison of the brain and a computer

Much interest has been focused on comparing the brain with computers. A variety of obvious analogies exist: for example, individual neurons can be compared to transistors on a microchip, and the specialised parts of the brain can be compared with graphics cards and other system components. However, such comparisons are fraught with difficulties. Perhaps the most fundamental difference between brains and computers are that today's computers operate by performing often sequential instructions from an input program, while no clear analogy of a program appears in human brains. The closest equivalent would be the idea of a logical process, but the nature and existence of such entities are subjects of philosophical debate. Given Alan Turing's model of computation, the Turing machine (which shows that any computation that can be performed by a parallel computer can be done by a sequential computer), this may be a functional, not fundamental, distinction. However, Maass and Markram have recently argued that "in contrast to Turing machines, generic computations by neural circuits are not digital, and are not carried out on static inputs, but rather on functions of time" (the Turing machine computes recursive functions). Ultimately, computers were not designed to be models of the brain, though subjects like neural networks attempt to abstract the behaviour of the brain in a way that can be simulated computationally.

Nevertheless, there has been numerous attempts to quantify differences in capability between the human brain and computers. According to Hans Moravec, by extrapolating from known capabilities of the retina to process image inputs, a brain has a processing capacity of 100 million million instructions per second, and is likely to be surpassed by computers by 2030. [3]

See also



  • Simon, Seymour (1999). The Brain. HarperTrophy. ISBN 0688170609
  • Thompson, Richard F. (2000). The Brain : An Introduction to Neuroscience. Worth Publishers. ISBN 0716732262
  • Campbell, Neil A. and Jane B. Reece. (2005). Biology. Benjamin Cummings. ISBN 0805371710

External links

Numbered references and notes

  1. ^  general public reference: She Brains - He Brains. Neuroscience for Kids. URL accessed on November 11, 2005.
    —technical reference: {{{title}}}.
  2. ^  Khaitovich, P., et al. 2004. "Regional patterns of gene expression in human and chimpanzee brains". Genome Research, 14:1462-1473. refers to four studies of comparative transcriptome analysis prior to publication of the findings in the cited manuscript

Nervous system

Brain - Spinal cord - Central nervous system - Peripheral nervous system - Somatic nervous system - Autonomic nervous system - Sympathetic nervous system - Parasympathetic nervous system

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