The control of some specific bodily functions, such as movement, vision, and hearing, is performed in specified areas of the cortex, and if these areas are damaged, the individual will likely lose the ability to perform the corresponding function. For instance, if an infant suffers damage to facial recognition areas in the temporal lobe, it is likely that he or she will never be able to recognize faces (Farah, Rabinowitz, Quinn, & Liu, 2000). 1 On the other hand, the brain is not divided up in an entirely rigid way. The brain’s neurons have a remarkable capacity to reorganize and extend themselves to carry out particular functions in response to the needs of the organism, and to repair damage. As a result, the brain constantly creates new neural communication routes and rewires existing ones. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change its structure and function in response to experience or damage. Neuroplasticity enables us to learn and remember new things and adjust to new experiences.
Our brains are the most “plastic” when we are young children, as it is during this time that we learn the most about our environment. On the other hand, neuroplasticity continues to be observed even in adults (Kolb & Fantie, 1989). 2 The principles of neuroplasticity help us understand how our brains develop to reflect our experiences. For instance, accomplished musicians have a larger auditory cortex compared with the general population (Bengtsson et al., 2005) 3 and also require less neural activity to move their fingers over the keys than do novices (Münte, Altenmüller, & Jäncke, 2002). 4 These observations reflect the changes in the brain that follow our experiences.
Plasticity is also observed when there is damage to the brain or to parts of the body that are represented in the motor and sensory cortexes. When a tumor in the left hemisphere of the brain impairs language, the right hemisphere will begin to compensate to help the person recover the ability to speak (Thiel et al., 2006). 5 And if a person loses a finger, the area of the sensory cortex that previously received information from the missing finger will begin to receive input from adjacent fingers, causing the remaining digits to become more sensitive to touch (Fox, 1984). 6
Although neurons cannot repair or regenerate themselves as skin or blood vessels can, new evidence suggests that the brain can engage in neurogenesis,the forming of new neurons (Van Praag, Zhao, Gage, & Gazzaniga, 2004). 7 These new neurons originate deep in the brain and may then migrate to other brain areas where they form new connections with other neurons (Gould, 2007). 8 This leaves open the possibility that someday scientists might be able to “rebuild” damaged brains by creating drugs that help grow neurons.
Research Focus: Identifying the Unique Functions of the Left and Right Hemispheres Using Split-Brain Patients
We have seen that the left hemisphere of the brain primarily senses and controls the motor movements on the right side of the body, and vice versa. This fact provides an interesting way to studybrain lateralization—the idea that the left and the right hemispheres of the brain are specialized to perform different functions. Gazzaniga, Bogen, and Sperry (1965) 9 studied a patient, known as W. J., who had undergone an operation to relieve severe seizures. In this surgery the region that normally connects the two halves of the brain and supports communication between the hemispheres, known as thecorpus callosum, is severed. As a result, the patient essentially becomes a person with two separate brains. Because the left and right hemispheres are separated, each hemisphere develops a mind of its own, with its own sensations, concepts, and motivations (Gazzaniga, 2005). 10
In their research, Gazzaniga and his colleagues tested the ability of W. J. to recognize and respond to objects and written passages that were presented to only the left or to only the right brain hemispheres (see Figure 3.10). The researchers had W. J. look straight ahead and then flashed, for a fraction of a second, a picture of a geometrical shape to the left of where he was looking. By doing so, they assured that—because the two hemispheres had been separated—the image of the shape was experienced only in the right brain hemisphere (remember that sensory input from the left side of the body is sent to the right side of the brain). Gazzaniga and his colleagues found that W. J. was able to identify what he had been shown when he was asked to pick the object from a series of shapes, using his left hand, but that he could not do this when the object was shown in the right visual field. On the other hand, W. J. could easily read written material presented in the right visual field (and thus experienced in the left hemisphere) but not when it was presented in the left visual field.
This research, and many other studies following it, has demonstrated that the two brain hemispheres specialize in different abilities. In most people the ability to speak, write, and understand language is located in the left hemisphere. This is why W. J. could read passages that were presented on the right side and thus transmitted to the left hemisphere, but could not read passages that were only experienced in the right brain hemisphere. The left hemisphere is also better at math and at judging time and rhythm. It is also superior in coordinating the order of complex movements—for example, lip movements needed for speech. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, has only very limited verbal abilities, and yet it excels in perceptual skills. The right hemisphere is able to recognize objects, including faces, patterns, and melodies, and it can put a puzzle together or draw a picture. This is why W. J. could pick out the image when he saw it on the left, but not the right, visual field. Although Gazzaniga’s research demonstrated that the brain is in fact lateralized, such that the two hemispheres specialize in different activities, this does not mean that when people behave in a certain way or perform a certain activity they are only using one hemisphere of their brains at a time. That would be drastically oversimplifying the concept of brain differences. We normally use both hemispheres at the same time, and the difference between the abilities of the two hemispheres is not absolute (Soroker et al., 2005). 11
Psychology in Everyday Life: Why Are Some People Left-Handed?
Across cultures and ethnic groups, about 90% of people are mainly right-handed, whereas only 10% are primarily left-handed (Peters, Reimers, & Manning, 2006). 12 This fact is puzzling, in part because the number of left-handers is so low, and in part because other animals, including our closest primate relatives, do not show any type of handedness.
The existence of right-handers and left-handers provides an interesting example of the relationship among evolution, biology, and social factors and how the same phenomenon can be understood at different levels of analysis (Harris, 1990; McManus, 2002). 13
At least some handedness is determined by genetics. Ultrasound scans show that 9 out of 10 fetuses suck the thumb of their right hand, suggesting that the preference is determined before birth (Hepper, Wells, & Lynch, 2005), 14 and the mechanism of transmission has been linked to a gene on the X chromosome (Jones & Martin, 2000). 15 It has also been observed that left-handed people are likely to have fewer children, and this may be in part because the mothers of left-handers are more prone to miscarriages and other prenatal problems (McKeever, Cerone, Suter, & Wu, 2000). 16
But culture also plays a role. In the past, left-handed children were forced to write with their right hands in many countries, and this practice continues, particularly in collectivistic cultures, such as India and Japan, where left-handedness is viewed negatively as compared with individualistic societies, such as the United States. For example, India has about half as many left-handers as the United States (Ida & Mandal, 2003). 17
There are both advantages and disadvantages to being left-handed in a world where most people are right-handed. One problem for lefties is that the world is designed for right-handers. Automatic teller machines (ATMs), classroom desks, scissors, microscopes, drill presses, and table saws are just some examples of everyday machinery that is designed with the most important controls on the right side. This may explain in part why left-handers suffer somewhat more accidents than do right-handers (Dutta & Mandal, 2006). 18
Despite the potential difficulty living and working in a world designed for right-handers, there seem to be some advantages to being left-handed. Throughout history, a number of prominent artists have been left-handed, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso, and Max Escher. Because the right hemisphere is superior in imaging and visual abilities, there may be some advantage to using the left hand for drawing or painting (Springer & Deutsch, 1998). 19 Left-handed people are also better at envisioning three-dimensional objects, which may explain why there is such a high number of left-handed architects, artists, and chess players in proportion to their numbers (Coren, 1992). 20 However, there are also more left-handers among those with reading disabilities, allergies, and migraine headaches (Geschwind & Behan, 2007), 21 perhaps due to the fact that a small minority of left-handers owe their handedness to a birth trauma, such as being born prematurely (Betancur, Vélez, Cabanieu, & le Moal, 1990). 22
In sports in which handedness may matter, such as tennis, boxing, fencing, or judo, left-handers may have an advantage. They play many games against right-handers and learn how to best handle their styles. Right-handers, however, play very few games against left-handers, which may make them more vulnerable. This explains why a disproportionately high number of left-handers are found in sports where direct one-on-one action predominates. In other sports, such as golf, there are fewer left-handed players because the handedness of one player has no effect on the competition.
The fact that left-handers excel in some sports suggests the possibility that they may have also had an evolutionary advantage because their ancestors may have been more successful in important skills such as hand-to-hand combat (Bodmer & McKie, 1994). 23 At this point, however, this idea remains only a hypothesis, and determinants of human handedness are yet to be fully understood.
- The old brain—including the brain stem, medulla, pons, reticular formation, thalamus, cerebellum, amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus—regulates basic survival functions, such as breathing, moving, resting, feeding, emotions, and memory.
- The cerebral cortex, made up of billions of neurons and glial cells, is divided into the right and left hemispheres and into four lobes.
- The frontal lobe is primarily responsible for thinking, planning, memory, and judgment. The parietal lobe is primarily responsible for bodily sensations and touch. The temporal lobe is primarily responsible for hearing and language. The occipital lobe is primarily responsible for vision. Other areas of the cortex act as association areas, responsible for integrating information.
- The brain changes as a function of experience and potential damage in a process known as plasticity. The brain can generate new neurons through neurogenesis.
- The motor cortex controls voluntary movements. Body parts requiring the most control and dexterity take up the most space in the motor cortex.
- The sensory cortex receives and processes bodily sensations. Body parts that are the most sensitive occupy the greatest amount of space in the sensory cortex.
- The left cerebral hemisphere is primarily responsible for language and speech in most people, whereas the right hemisphere specializes in spatial and perceptual skills, visualization, and the recognition of patterns, faces, and melodies.
- The severing of the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres, creates a “split-brain patient,” with the effect of creating two separate minds operating in one person.
- Studies with split-brain patients as research participants have been used to study brain lateralization.
- Neuroplasticity allows the brain to adapt and change as a function of experience or damage.
EXERCISES AND CRITICAL THINKING
- Do you think that animals experience emotion? What aspects of brain structure might lead you to believe that they do or do not?
- Consider your own experiences and speculate on which parts of your brain might be particularly well developed as a result of these experiences.
- Which brain hemisphere are you likely to be using when you search for a fork in the silverware drawer? Which brain hemisphere are you most likely to be using when you struggle to remember the name of an old friend?
- Do you think that encouraging left-handed children to use their right hands is a good idea? Why or why not?