Part 1: Cognitive Functions & Corina’s Language Abilities
In the National Geographic article, “Beyond the Brain,” James Shreeve depicts a young patient’s journey through a life changing operation that will physically change the way one sees themselves.
Thomas Willis, known as the father of neurology, was the first to discover that the brain is the locus of the mind because of its multiple cognitive functions. These cognitive functions occur in specific locations. For example, where one remembers a sequence of their best friend’s telephone number is not in the same location in the brain, as where one recalls their familiar face.
Shreeve notes that “in the past few years, however, powerful new techniques for visualizing the sources of thought, emotion, and behavior are revolutionizing the way we understand the nature of the brain and the mind it creates.” For example, 28-year-old Corina Amarillo had a brain surgery that was going to test specific language abilities as the doctors at the UCLA medical center removed a brain tumor. As a bilingual, the neural territories may overlap because she was taught to speak both English and Spanish at a young age. Throughout surgery, she was asked to identify an object on a picture card as the doctor touched her brain with an electrode. As this happened she would answer some of the questions in English while others in Spanish. The two surgeons in the UCLA operating room said that “when Corina makes a mistake or struggles to identify a picture of some simple object, the doctors know they have hit upon a critical area, and they label the spot with a square of sterile paper, like a tiny Post-it note.”
In the 1950s American neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield used an electrode to stimulate certain spots on the brains of epilepsy patients while they were awake during operations instead of relying on damaged brains to illustrate the origins of normal cognitive function. By labeling the critical area in the brain, doctors can use an electrode to denote where the main problem is on the brain. Having the patient awake on the operating table helps the doctors understand what they need to do in order for the patient’s linguistic skills to be smooth and understandable.
As a child, Corina comprehended and learned more information than any other at her age through her senses. Because so many neurons were stimulating in her brain, Corina's cognitive functions were less focused where her sense of self was not developed until a later age. For example, in studies conducted by Daniel Povinelli and his colleagues at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, young children were recorded playing a game while an adult put a sticker in their hair. When shown the videotape later on, most children over the age of three reached up to their own hair to remove the sticker, while younger children did not make the connection that there was something there. This demonstrates that the three-year-olds understood that the person in the video was the same as the one in the present moment and could react because their sense of self.
As scientists are learning about all higher cognitive functions, they discover that it resides in a particular location or that matures all at once. Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health, one of the lead scientists on the neuroimaging studies says that “the executive brain doesn't hit adult levels until the age of 25." In fact, one of the last areas to mature in the brain is the prefrontal cortex where judgements, decisions, plans, and behaviors are determined.
In comparison, Corina's cortex was thickest at the age of 11 where her basic functions, such as sensory processing and movement, in the front and back of the brain were developed at a younger age. Corina could remember some memories, while she couldn’t with others. She only remembered the emotional connection to the memory, not the memory itself. During surgery, the doctors found that as Corina named the pictures on the cards, the changes in the way lights reflected off the brain caused an increase in blood flow in certain spots. This indicated that there is neurotransmitter conductivity and cognitive activity in that exact spot.
Furthermore, by studying thousands of people, doctors and scientists may be able to learn more of where conductivity is strongest which will tell us how the brain is organized.
Coming soon - Part 2: Brain Research from Memory to Meditation
-Written by Lily Schmitt and Tanya L. Hilber, PsyD
Shreeve, James. “Beyond the Brain.” Science and Innovation. National Geographic Magazine. Web. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/health-and-human-body/human-body/mind-brain/