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What Are the Functions of the Prefrontal Cortex?

The frontal lobe contains the prefrontal cortex.
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  • Written By: T. Broderick
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 08 December 2014
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Primary functions of the prefrontal cortex involve planning a person's response to complex and difficult problems. The prefrontal cortex resides at the front of the brain, and it is subdivided by the brain's right and left hemispheres. It acts as an "executive" for the decision making process, weaving past events to present experiences in order to make the best choices. The cortex develops slowly, finally reaching maturity in a person's early to mid-20s. Medical conditions that affect the prefrontal cortex can have a profound effect on decision making and even personality.

The prefrontal cortex is a large area of the brain that takes up most of the frontal lobes in the right and left hemispheres. Like the rest of the cerebrum, the outer 0.07 to 0.19 inches (2 to 5 millimeters) of brain tissue are gray matter, specialized neurons that can send neural impulses at a much faster rate than the underlying white matter. The complex functions of the prefrontal cortex would be impossible without this large amount of gray matter.

This part of the brain gives human beings much of their intelligence and problem solving ability. The prefrontal cortex has the ability to process both the current environment and past memories. This ability likely helped early humans by allowing them to apply memories to new situations. What was once an evolutionary advantage for survival still plays a role in 21st century human development.

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Though most humans no longer face constant threats to their survival, the functions of the prefrontal cortex are still applicable in 21st century life. It acts as a voice of reason, guiding human beings to make rational decisions over impulsive ones. Recent advances into neurology have explained how human behavior is affected by this part of the brain. Young adults whose prefrontal cortex is still developing, for example, participate in more risky activities and make less rational choices than adults. Teenage fatalities due to drunk driving are a key example of this poor ability to make rational decisions.

For adults, damage to the prefrontal cortex can impair a person's decision making abilities. The most famous historical case occurred in 1848 when an American named Phineas Gage had a railroad spike shot through his skull during a work accident. Though Gage survived and lived another 12 years, the damage to his left prefrontal cortex made him impulsive and caused other personality changes. Besides severe physical trauma, milder events such as concussions from sports and falling can have a similar effect on the brain.

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anon967299
Post 6

Some poor choices are made due to inexperience and not because of undeveloped or damage prefrontal cortex. Don't be too quick to blame your brain for something you did wrong. Other factors can come into play, such as porn addiction or game addiction which have both gone rampant with the rate of developing technologies.

orangey03
Post 4

My sister's doctor warned the family that she might be different after her fall. She had fallen out of a two-story window and hit her head on the hard ground, suffering a concussion. He warned us that her personality might be a bit altered because of it.

Since she had hit the area around her prefrontal cortex, he figured there might be some damage. Sure enough, she started to become really impulsive. This was a shock, because my sister had always been very conservative and in control of her actions.

She started enrolling in everything from violin classes to community service. She bought a sewing machine and said she intended to become a dressmaker, but she also bought some design software and said she wanted to become a graphic designer. My parents had to keep a close watch on her, because she easily could have spent all the money she had saved up for college.

Perdido
Post 3

After reading this, I now believe that my prefrontal cortex had a lot to do with my decision not to reunite with my ex-boyfriend. I had a vast amount of bad memories from the past with him, and in my mind, I could envision what would probably happen if I did let him back in my life.

I was in my early twenties when we got together, and I truly believe that if I had been a bit older, I would have had more sense than to put up with the things that he did. I loved him, and I would have done anything to hold onto him, so I tolerated the other women and drugs at the time.

I broke up with him when I couldn't take it anymore, and three years later, he wanted me back. However, during our time apart, I had gotten a lot more reserved with my heart and who I let into it, and there was no chance that I would let him damage me again.

lighth0se33
Post 2

@seag47 – I think that teens are at a disadvantage because of their maturing prefrontal cortex. They pay more attention to peer pressure than to logic, simply because the pull to please their friends is stronger than their reasoning not to.

I had a good friend in high school who made a rash decision without thinking it through. She rode in a car with a guy who had been drinking a lot, and she ended up paralyzed after he hit a tree. He died instantly.

I know she wishes every day that she could go back in time and talk some sense into her old self. She struggled with what happened for years, and I think it made her grow up before her time.

seag47
Post 1

Well, that explains why teenagers do dumb things that most adults wouldn't even consider! My fifteen-year-old niece comes to mind.

She recently participated in hood surfing. This is a dangerous game where one kid tries to hang onto the hood of a car while the other one drives.

The driver thought it would be funny to slam on the brakes and send her sailing through the air. He didn't realize she would break her leg in the process. Now, he is in trouble with the law.

She is in trouble also, but only with her parents, who have grounded her for the foreseeable future. Maybe I should tell them to go easy on her, because her underdeveloped prefrontal cortex could be to blame.

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