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How Do Our Human Brains Learn and Function for Us? (Part I)

This is the first part in a four-part series on the anatomy of the human brain and the way in which different structures of the brain collaborate to accomplish learning.

Our brains work in fascinating ways. We tend to take for granted how they go about absorbing, processing and storing new information, because we are not, generally speaking, conscious witnesses to the mechanics of the process. Sure, we learn every day. But we aren’t able to observe the “sausage making” from input through to finished product.

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Yet it is no less a marvel the way our minds navigate and make sense of the world around us. In this article series, we’ll explore the way our brains interpret new information as we learn, how the different parts of the brain contribute to the processing of environmental stimuli, and how the brain commits new experiences to various levels of memory for future recall.

The Various Sections of the Human Brain

First, the brain is composed of three main parts: the cerebrum, the cerebellum and the brainstem. The cerebrum is the big, wide part of the brain on top, and it is split into right and left halves, which we call “hemispheres.” The left hemisphere of the brain is linked to the right side of the body, and the right hemisphere is linked to the left side of the body. But there is far more to the cerebrum than just motor control.

Aside from the two hemispheres, the cerebrum is further divided into lobes. The frontal lobe, which is the part that sits on top and toward the front of the brain, manages functions including personality and emotion, judgment and problem solving, intelligence and concentration, speaking and writing, and fine motor skills.

The parietal lobe, which sits on top and toward the back, deals with input processing, including visual perception and spatial awareness, hearing and language interpretation, and feeling and sensation. The occipital lobe, which sits directly in the back of the cerebrum, handles other aspects of visual sensory input, including color, light saturation, and movement in the environment.

And finally, the temporal lobe, which is on the base of the cerebrum, assists the parietal lobe with hearing and language assessment. It also handles memory and organization of information for recall.

The cerebellum is a much smaller part of the brain that sits in the back of the skull, below and behind the cerebrum. Whereas the cerebrum addresses specific fine motor control, the cerebellum handles musculoskeletal functions like posture, balance and general coordination.

Lastly, the brainstem connects the cerebrum and the cerebellum to the spinal cord and the rest of the body. Additionally, the brainstem controls routine and subconscious homeostasis functions like breathing, heart rate, temperature management, sleeping and waking, sneezing, coughing, and swallowing.

There are more specific regions and sub-parts within the larger structures of the brain, but these are the most fundamental large-scale components. Having reviewed them, an important question is how they behave when a human is exposed to a new stimulus and has a learning experience.

How Our Brains Learn

There are many different environments and scenarios in which we learn different things, but two distinct types that are fairly familiar and discernable are 1) occasions when we learn new physical skills or abilities, and 2) occasions when we learn new conceptual knowledge.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at the way different structures of the brain play unique roles in each of these two different situations.

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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