Part of the Brain: The Inside Story exhibition.

The powers of your brain are astonishing. You can live in the moment, reflect on the past, or imagine the future. You can allow your thoughts to wander in new directions--or train them to shut out the world and focus within. How does your brain help you reason, plan, make choices and set your mind on your goals?

How it Works

Much of the thinking you do day-to-day is a form of planning or problem-solving: deciding which steps to take to complete a job or get from here to there. When problem-solving, neurons near the front of your brain come alive. They take in a flurry of signals from the rest of the brain, help you weigh your options, and choose the best course--then transmit the plan to your brain's motor areas for action.

Make Up Your Mind

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Just when you're trying your best to be reasonable, however, your emotions can lead you astray. While executive neurons at the front of your brain allow for rational and logical decision-making, it's easy to be swayed by the emotional circuitry in your brain.

Have you ever bought something you can't afford and don't even need? Blame it on your overactive nucleus accumbens. Studies show that this bundle of neurons--sometimes called the brain's reward center--becomes active when you see a product that pleases you. If the price is exorbitant, your insula may express disapproval, and your reasonable prefrontal cortex may keep you in check. But if these brain areas are busy with other cares of the day, you'll reach for the reward.