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What Is the Role of the Frontal Cortex?

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  • Written By: Gregory Hanson
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2016
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The primary role of the frontal cortex is to direct and coordinate the functioning of other parts of the brain, both through a process of conscious thought and decision-making and by drawing on other neural resources on a subconscious level. This entails receiving input from all of the body’s senses and processing that input to highlight the most important pieces of information. The frontal cortex is also responsible for the brain’s ability to create long-term plans, has a role in governing emotions, and is involved in creativity and original thinking.

One key function of this region of the brain involves the integration and filtering of sensory information. Human senses provide the brain with an abundance of sensory information from the world, and the brain cannot directly process all of it. One of the tasks of the prefrontal cortex is the filtering and sorting of sensory information. This allows significant information to be noticed, considered, and acted upon, while more trivial information can be disregarded.

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Impulse control and long-term planning are crucial skills for human beings, and these skills are rooted in the functioning of the frontal cortex. A properly-functioning frontal lobe is able to filter impulses arising elsewhere in the brain. This process allows the brain to selectively override impulses which are valuable in certain circumstances but inappropriate in others. A similar fear response occurs when confronted by physical danger and when facing an important but challenging meeting, but flight is only an appropriate response in one of those situations. The frontal cortex is responsible for determining which situation actually warrants flight.

This region of the brain is also responsible for overriding short-term impulses when needed in order to pursue long-term goals. Human instinct suggests that eating until stuffed when food is available is an appropriate survival strategy. The frontal cortex is able to recognize the long-term disadvantages associated with such a plan. Damage to this part of the cortex can result in the inability to make or adhere to long-term plans and may manifest as apathy.

The frontal cortex is one of the areas of the human brain that developed most recently. As such, it is largely occupied with relatively new cognitive functions, such as language, which most other mammalian brains are not designed to process. Patients who have suffered damage to certain parts of the frontal cortex have difficulty with language tasks.

The frontal lobe also plays a role in making and accessing memories. It largely determines which pieces of information are worth filing away for future recall, and damage to this region can lead to problems with both creating and recalling memories. This association with working memory ties in to an additional function of the frontal cortex, namely its role in creativity. Patients who have suffered damage to this area or who have had a lobotomy, severing the connection to this region, show much-reduced levels of creative thought.

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