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Discovering Psychology: Updated Edition

The Behaving Brain

The Behaving Brain is the third program in the Discovering Psychology series. This program looks at the structure and composition of the human brain: how neurons function, how information is collected and transmitted, and how chemical reactions relate to thought and behavior.

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Essay: The Brain and Amnesia


The human brain is an extraordinarily complex organ made up of different regions and parts, each with its own function. Chemical molecules and electrical impulses constantly flow between regions of the brain, sending signals and messages to other parts of the brain and body. Much like an orchestra, brain functioning depends on many individual parts working together.

One example highlighted in this program is the brain’s role in our ability to remember. Psychologist Dr. Mieke Verfaellie studies the causes and effects of amnesia at the Memory Disorders Research Center in Boston. Her research draws on evidence of damage to the hippocampal region of the brain, the area responsible for laying down new memories.

Contrary to popular opinion, amnesia doesn’t result in the loss of all memory or identity. Amnesia affects our short-term, or anterograde memory, and our ability to learn and retain new information. What’s interesting and often surprising in amnesia cases is that other regions of the brain continue to function normally, such as long-term memory. But damage to even one area, such as short-term memory, can dramatically affect our ability to navigate through daily life.

Neuroscientists are learning from abnormal brain functioning, such as amnesia, to identify normal brain patterns. For instance, the interplay of brain regions and their role in thoughts, understanding, and behavior are now better understood.

For a more detailed breakdown of the human brain, go to the Brain Exploration feature of this site.

Dr. Verfaellie contributed to an article about memory distortions in amnesic patients, published in MIT’s Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, “When True Recognition Suppresses False Recognition: Evidence from Amnesic Patients.” http://mitpress.mit.edu/journals/JOCN/jcn10602.pdf.

Glossary

Brain Stem: The main structure of the nervous system that connects the brain to the spinal cord.

Nerve Impulse: An electrical discharge passed along a neuron’s internal fiber.

Neuron: The basic element of the nervous system; a cell which allows rapid communication between adjacent cells, including receiving, processing, and transmitting information.

Neurotransmitter: A chemical messenger, released from neurons, that crosses the synapse and interacts with receptors.

Soma: The cell body of a neuron, containing the nucleus and cytoplasm of the cell.

Synapse: The junction between one neuron and the membrane of the next neuron.

Units