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thinking

OLogy Series
biology
card
332

thinking

OLogy Series
biology

If there's one thing that makes humans different from other animals, it's the way we think. Thanks to our brain's advanced outer layer, or cortex--especially the front--humans can think beyond what's happening right now. We can remember the past, plan for the future, and even think about thinking. We can also use language to share these thoughts with other people.

Trapped in the Past

Henry Molaison could not remember anything that happened to him after 1953, when he had brain surgery to treat epilepsy. While removing the areas causing his seizures, doctors unknowingly removed the parts of his brain that store long-term memories, including both hippocampi.

From then on, his doctor had to introduce herself everyday, over and over, for 30 years. Henry's short-term memory remained, so he could carry on an intelligent conversation. He just couldn't remember it afterwards! This unfortunate case study revealed the role of the hippocampus in forming long-term memories.

Language and Your Brain

Humans are born with brains that are ready to speak, listen, and understand. There's no single language area in your brain, but a few regions have specific functions: expressing yourself uses one area, while understanding other people uses another.

Like most parts of your brain, language areas come in twos, with copies on the right and left sides. In most people, the left side handles the literal meaning of words, and the right side interprets tone of voice. So if your friend says, "I just LOVE going to the dentist," you process the words with both sides of your brain, but your right side detects if she's being sarcastic!

At which age is it easier to learn a new language?

as a child

as a teenager

as an adult

Are you right?

Correct!

Brain scans show younger children learn a second language in the same part of their brains as their first language. Later in life, a new language gets processed in a different place--which makes learning it more difficult.

Procedural memories let us do things we've learned without having to think about them. An example of a procedural memory is:

learning a new telephone number

recalling a birthday party

tying your shoes

Are you right?

Correct!

When you tie your shoes without even thinking about it, a part of the brain called the basal ganglia helps tell your fingers what to do. Short-term memories, like a new phone number, or memories of past events are stored in different parts of your brain.

Most of your planning and problem solving happens in the back of your brain.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fiction

Thanks to parts of the front of your brain called "executive centers," you can think ahead, imagine different strategies, weigh pros and cons, and make choices.

There is one "intelligence" center in the brain that determines how smart a person is.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fiction

Intelligence involves many kinds of thinking, and uses many parts of the brain. It includes things like memory, creativity, empathy, and connecting different parts of the brain.

London taxi drivers memorize so many routes, streets, and landmarks, that parts of their brains are bigger than the average person's.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fact

Brain scans have shown a taxi driver's hippocampus--the part of the brain used to store long-term memories and maps--literally grows from constant use!

Definition: your brain's ability to reason, plan, remember, make choices, and communicate
Related Brain Parts: cortex, prefrontal cortex
Cool Fact: Too little sleep can interfere with your short-term and long-term memory.
Cool Fact: The more actively you use your brain, the more likely it is to stay sharp as long as you live. Try different types of activities like doing puzzles, playing an instrument, and learning a new language.

Image credits: © istockphoto.com.