What Is the Difference between the Forebrain and Midbrain?

H. Lo

There are a couple of important differences between the forebrain and the midbrain, though their location, their size, and their functionality tend to be the biggest and most commonly discussed. In terms of basic anatomy, the forebrain sits most to the front, as its name would suggest; the midbrain, in turn, is more centrally located along the brain’s midline. The forebrain is also a lot bigger, though this perhaps owes to its more robust list of functional tasks and responsibilities. In general, the forebrain is responsible for functions such as intelligence, memory, and voluntary movement. The midbrain is primarily concerned with coordinating the communication that passes between the brain and the spinal cord. Of course, there are a number of overlaps, too. Both are crucial parts of the central nervous system and often share signaling and relay functions.

Intelligence, memory and voluntary movement are controlled by the forebrain.
Intelligence, memory and voluntary movement are controlled by the forebrain.

Brain Anatomy Generally

The brain is arguably the human body’s most complex organ, and is one that even the most elite researchers and scholars don’t profess to fully understand or comprehend. In addition to its two hemispheres, the brain also includes several sections, grouped both based on their physical features and natural divisions as well as what researchers have identified as their primary functions.

The midbrain coordinates communication and helps govern hearing.
The midbrain coordinates communication and helps govern hearing.

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Two of three main sections of the brain are the forebrain and midbrain, with the third one being the hindbrain. The forebrain is the largest of the three sections and the midbrain is the smallest. The main part of the forebrain, and the brain in general, is the cerebrum, which is divided into two hemispheres and also contains the four lobes of the brain. In addition, the forebrain also consists of deeper structures such as the hypothalamus and the amygdala. The midbrain, on the other hand, is very small in comparison and sits at the top part of the brain stem, underneath the forebrain.

The midbrain influences feelings of arousal.
The midbrain influences feelings of arousal.

Size Differences

One of the most obvious differences apart from location is sizing. The forebrain, as the largest, is comprised of a greater amount of structures. As the structures of the forebrain each perform specific functions that together make up what the forebrain is responsible for, the midbrain, in comparison, performs fewer. This does not mean that the midbrain is somehow less important, however. Its functions are fewer to correlate with its smaller size, but in most cases the tasks completed here aren’t repeated elsewhere.

The midbrain helps to coordinate communication between the brain and spinal cord.
The midbrain helps to coordinate communication between the brain and spinal cord.


The midbrain’s function in aiding the communication between the brain and the spinal cord is made easier by its location because it is a part of the brain stem. While the midbrain sits at the top of the brain stem, the uppermost part of the spinal cord is at the bottom. In between the two lies the pons and medulla. As the top of the brainstem, the midbrain connects the brainstem with the forebrain. The midbrain does serve other functions other than relaying communication; it also controls some reflexes and helps control voluntary movements as well.

Similarities and Overlaps

In most cases, all parts of the brain work together, and this is certainly true where the forebrain and midbrain are concerned. It’s often thought that the two more or less rely on each other, and injuries or damage to one part often impact the other, too. Sometimes, particularly in the young, functionalities of one area can be rerouted and actually performed by another. In general, though, the forebrain and midbrain rely on each other, and need each other in order to communicate with the spinal cord.

The midbrain is the smallest of the three main brain sections.
The midbrain is the smallest of the three main brain sections.

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Discussion Comments


@irontoenail - It is quite difficult to dissect a brain, and to some extent it is a bit of guess work as a lot of the time the different areas don't look all that different from each other.

Although if you had had a chance to pick one up and look at it properly, instead of in a jar, and compare it to some diagrams, you might have been able to make out some things.

It's pretty easy to learn which parts are the forebrain and which are the midbrain, even though they are all roughly the same color. Although the midbrain is underneath the forebrain, so you'd need to look at a specimen that had already been dissected in order to really see it.

Although if you're curious, you might be better off looking in a textbook.


@croydon - I took a dissection class at one point too, but I had to drop out because I couldn't take it. I don't know why it bothered me so much, but it did. I just would start feeling sick and would have to rush out of the room.

We never did brains though. We could see quite a few of them in jars in the room, but they all pretty much looked the same to me, just in different sizes.

I have no idea how people can tell the difference between the forebrain, the midbrain and the hindbrain either. From what I could tell, they all just looked like one piece, without any kind of different shapes or colors that could tell you where one thing starts and another ends.

But again, I was terrible at that class, so maybe I just didn't get it.


I took a dissection class as part of my science degree and at one point we were allowed to handle brains, I think the pickled brains of sheep.

They were quite small, smaller than you might expect. We weren't allowed to cut into them or damage them in any way, as at that point we wouldn't have had a clue what we were doing. But, they wanted us to be able to identify the different structures of the brain, including parts of the forebrain and the midbrain and so on.

One of the things that really surprised me was how firm it was. I guess I had always expected brains to be kind of goopy, but it was as firm as, say a peach. Some give, but generally all of a piece and I'd say even more firm than other parts of the body.

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