The Human Brain

The Human Brain: Learn about what makes us tick, and how scientists study our brains!

The brain is the body’s command centre. It controls our thoughts, movement and personality. In order to gain a better understanding of how our brains work to make us who we are, scientists have studied how different parts of this complex organ contribute to the function of the human body. Today’s activities will explore the history of the study of the brain, the way we now understand its function, and how doctors use brain scans to learn more about this mysterious organ.

The Strange Origins of Modern Neuroscience

Neuroscience today is the well-respected scientific study of the function of the human brain and its constituent parts, but it has some of its origin in the peculiar nineteenth-century pseudoscience of phrenology. Phrenology was based on the idea that people’s intelligence, moral character and personality are represented in the shape of our skulls, and that you could learn about someone’s personality based on the bumps in their head. It was mostly complete rubbish, but it might still have influenced the development of modern science.

Have you heard the words “high brow” or “well-rounded” used to refer to people or things which are intelligent or balanced? These terms originated in phrenology, referring literally to the shape of someone’s brow or head!

The video below explains the place of phrenology in nineteenth-century efforts to understand the brain, and outlines the great debate between a localistic and distributed model of brain function. Scientists at the time were debating whether parts of the brain work together as a whole or have individual roles.

Activity: Time-travelling scientist!

Clearly, science has moved on a great deal since the debates of Aubertin and Gratiolet about whether the brain works as a whole or in parts, and since Gall first experimented with the pseudoscience of phrenology. Place yourself in the shoes of one of these scientists and imagine you have been transported to a present-day neuroscience lab.

  • What aspects of neuroscience do you think you might spot that have been inspired by your work?
  • How has the way scientists conduct their experiments and research changed?

Write a short postcard home to your fellow nineteenth-century researchers reflecting on twenty-first century science. You might want to think about practical and ethical changes as well as new scientific discoveries.

If you’re stuck, or want some inspiration, click this bar to read a few of our ideas!
  • The localistic approach to the brain won out, and studying how different parts of the brain contribute differently to memory, speech, movement, personality and analysis has been the backbone of modern neuroscience.
  • Modern technology means brain scans allow us to observe activity in different levels of the brain.
  • This technology means scientists no longer have to experiment by damaging parts of the brains of live animals. This would now be considered cruel and highly unethical.
  • Modern scientists understand the importance of connections between different parts of the brain alongside their distinct functions.

Going Further

If you enjoyed reading about the pseudoscience of phrenology, and would like to learn more about the damaging effects of pseudo-scientific writing, why not click here to watch a video which describes how phrenology was used to justify racist thinking.

The Parts of the Human Brain

Activity: Lobes and Lobes of Fun…

Imagine you’re going on a day out with your friends. You might like to go shopping, take a trip to the beach, go to the cinema, or go for something to eat. It’s up to you!  Choose three activities you might get up to during a day out with friends, and for each one, draw a picture of yourself enjoying that activity. You might be:

  • Tasting some food
  • Watching a movie
  • Jumping on a trampoline
  • Skateboarding

Whatever you do, everything you experience is going to be processed by one of the four lobes of the brain we heard mentioned in the video:

  • Frontal Lobe
  • Parietal Lobe
  • Temporal Lobe
  • Occipital Lobe

Label your picture with the name of the lobe or lobes, and what information they are processing during the activity.

If you need refreshing on the roles of each of the four lobes, click this bar!

The occipital lobe is responsible for visual processing, allowing you to see and perceive images, colours and patterns.

The parietal lobe processes sensory information from your body. It allows you to touch and feel things. It allows you to feel changes in temperature, pain and to sense your body in space.

The temporal lobe is responsible for more advanced processing of things you see, the formation of memories and our emotional reactions to experiences.

The frontal lobe contains the primary motor cortex which is responsible for how we move and speak. It’s also responsible for higher-level thinking like planning, decision-making and lots more.

Studying the Brain: Brain Scans

Learning about how our brains work is pretty cool, but how do we know so much about an organ buried deep beneath or skulls? As we’ve seen, early scientists started out using pretty invasive techniques, damaging animals’ brains and conducting painful, invasive experiments on humans. Nowadays neuroscientists prefer to use brain scans to learn about what’s going on in the brain without the need to cause any pain or damage.

Watch the video below which describes three different types of brain scans: EEG, fMRI and PET, and their different uses.

Challenge: Keep Calm and Brain Scan!

Going for a brain scan can be quite nerve-wracking, whether you’re a patient in a hospital being scanned for medical reasons, or a volunteer offering your time to help researchers learn more about the human brain.

Your challenge is to produce a short leaflet to be given to someone about to undergo one of the three brain scans described in the video: EEG, fMRI or PET.

Choose which brain scan you’d like to focus on and use the information in the video and some of the extra resources we’ve provided below from the NHS website to describe what the scan involves, and what it can allow scientists to study. Your goal is to make your reader realise how important and safe the scan is!

Emmet O'Leary
Emmet O’Leary

Emmet O’Leary studied History at St John’s College, Oxford. Whilst studying he spent time as JCR Class Rep, promoting the interests of students from under-represented socioeconomic groups and later as President of the Junior Common Room (JCR). His undergraduate thesis explored the impact of Famine in Ireland, and its demographic shockwaves, on cultural and religious practice in the nineteenth century. He has wide-ranging historical interests including the writings of the Enlightenment and the social upheavals of the European Reformations and is also keenly interested in constitutional law and its connection to current affairs. Emmet is currently Access and Outreach Intern at St John’s.