Mark N. Skelton, MA, EMDR
Doctoral Student, Clinical Psychology (KCU)
The human brain is packed with a 100,000 miles of blood vessels, fires off around 100 billion neurons simultaneously and has the ability to zip information across the skull at 250 miles per hour (Ask the Scientists, 2020). These godlike characteristics make the Psalmist strikingly accurate when penning the precept “fearfully and wonderfully made”. This bridge between the invisible realities and the physical world controls the senses, cognitive abilities and the entire human experience. For these reasons, it is worthwhile to gain a better understanding of this three-pound majesty we call the brain. The human brain consists of three major areas known as the cerebral cortex, the cerebellum and the brainstem. You can think of the brain as a three-story house with an upstairs level, downstairs level and a basement. The structure and function of this “Triune Brain” will be the topic of this blog so let’s begin upstairs with the cerebral cortex.
The Cerebral Cortex
Also known as the cerebrum, the cerebral cortex is the largest part of the human brain and takes up around 85% of the total brain mass (Marieb & Hoehn, 2012). The cortex is made up of the left and right hemisphere and contains roughly 200 million connections between the two hemispheres. This outer layer of the brain is the location of the folded ridges and grooves that is seen on a typical brain (Field et al., 2017). For understanding sake, the wrinkles that are distinctive of a brain are the results of neurons being stuffed together into the skull just like spaghetti in a bowl. Field et al. (2017) highlights that the cerebral cortex is home to the four major lobes (frontal, parietal, temporal, occipital) and is virtually responsible for everything from critical thinking, emotional regulation, behavior, vision processing and survival. If you find this area impressive, let’s head downstairs into the cerebellum.
The cerebellum, also known as the “little brain”, is located below the occipital lobe towards the back of the brain. What is fascinating about the cerebellum is that this area only takes up 11% of the total brain mass, but holds 3.6 times as many brain cells as the previously mentioned cerebral cortex (Marieb & Hoehn, 2012; Field et al., 2017)! This part of the brain is shaped like cauliflower and also has two hemispheres. Originally thought to govern only motor skills, balance and posture, researchers have discovered that the cerebellum also plays a role in attention, pleasure, emotion and cognition (Strick et al., 2009; Turner et al., 2007). If you are interested in strengthening this area of the brain be sure to participate in plenty of physical and balancing exercises.
The Brain Stem
In the basement is the brainstem and this area connects the base of the brain to the spine (Fields et al., 2017). If you remember the scene from the 1998 movie “Waterboy”, where Adam Sandler was debating The Professor, this is the area where the “medulla oblongata” is located. Unlike the cerebral cortex, the brain operates on a subconscious level, or an involuntary level, and handles the basic essential functions to stay alive, such as breathing, digestion, heart rate blood pressure, circadian rhythms and sleep cycles. A stroke in this area of the brain stem can result in a coma or even death (John Hopkins Medicine, 2020). In honor of my late father, Dr. John D. Skelton, Jr., the way that he passed was due to a stroke in this area of the brain. Consequently, good brain health and mental health practices are essential.
Recap of the Triune Brain
An easy way to remember the layout of the tri-part brain is a comparison to the pattern of the Old Testament tabernacle following the outer court (cerebral cortex), the inner court (cerebellum) and the Holy Place (the brainstem). The further you move in this “Temple Brain” the less volume is occupied and the closer one moves toward vital operations of the brain. Lastly, each part of the brain has their unique structure and contribution to the human experience. If you would like to continue your study of the brain, some recommended selections include “The Brain: The Story of You” by Dr. David Eagleman and “My First Book About the Brain” by Patricia J. Wynne and Donald M. Silver.
Ask the Scientists. (2020). 41 Fascinating facts about your amazing brain.
Field, T.A., Jones, L.K., & Russell-Chapin, L.A. (2017). Neurocounseling: Brain-based clinical approaches.
American Counseling Association.
John Hopkins Medicine. (2020). Effects of Stroke.
Strick, P.L., Dum, R.P., & Fiez, J.A. (2009). Cerebellum and nonmotor function. Annual Review of
Neuroscience, 23, 413-434.
Turner, B.M., Paradiso, S., Marvel, C.L., Pierson, R., Ponto, L.L.B., Hichwa, R.D., & Robinson, R.G. (2007).
The cerebellum and emotional experience. Neuropsychologia, 45, 1331-1341.
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