Brain Area for Decision-Making and Planning is “Uniquely Human”

By Carl Engelking | January 30, 2014 12:10 pm

human mind

Star Trek may have told us that space is humanity’s final frontier, but plenty of uncharted hinterland remains unexplored within the human brain. And scientists at Oxford University recently discovered an area of the brain that contributes to make humans, well, human.

The walnut-sized area, nestled within the frontal cortex, is called the lateral frontal pole. It’s responsible for planning and decision-making and, according to the new findings, has no equivalent in the monkey brain. Researchers thus believe this brain region might be responsible for humans’ upper hand in tasks that require strategic planning, decision-making and multitasking.

Exploring the Brain

The researchers compared MRI images of humans’ and macaques’ ventrolateral frontal cortex, a region of the brain that controls language and complex thought processes. Surprisingly, they found that the region was wired up in much the same way between the species. But the striking difference was the lateral frontal pole.

Oxford senior researcher Matthew Rushworth explained the significance of the finding in a statement Tuesday:

“We tend to think that being able to plan into the future, be flexible in our approach and learn from others are things that are particularly impressive about humans. We’ve identified an area of the brain that appears to be uniquely human, and is likely to have something to do with these cognitive powers.”

The research team published its findings in the journal Neuron.

Battling Psychiatric Disease

Parts of the larger ventrolateral frontal cortex are implicated in conditions such as ADHD, drug addiction, and compulsive disorders. Language is affected when parts of the area are damaged due to stroke or neurological diseases.

Thus, a deeper understanding of this territory will help scientists learn more about the changes that occur in the brain due to disease and damage. Karl Zilles, a neuroscientist at the Institute for Neuroscience and Medicine in Germany, told The Guardian that the study is a significant step forward in the study of psychiatric disease:

“I am quite sure that this will turn out to be of great importance in studying psychiatric disease. What we understand now is the connectivity within the brain. We know the cables and the connections. What we have to do now is combine all this with how information is processed in the different brain areas.”

Image credit: ollyy/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
  • Robert Johns

    Exploring the Brain, its anatomy, connections & functions is some of the best science we’ve done in the last 50 years, though I can’t help the nagging feeling we are going to run into a situation where very large amounts of what we think we know will be overturned or have to be radically rethought due to a few major surprises.

  • Mados

    ““We tend to think that being able to plan into the future, be flexible in our approach and learn from others are things that are particularly impressive about humans. We’ve identified an area of the brain that appears to be uniquely human, and is likely to have something to do with these cognitive powers.”

    Uhm, learning from others is impressive and uniquely human? What about wolves and dingoes, they learn from others by observation (and not only their own kind). I seems highly unlikely that other social animals wouldn’t do that. Of course if it has not been scientifically proven yet for a number of species, then for a while it can still be claimed uniquely human while we wait for a study that uses some smart design to show that an obscure wild creature or another common pet in our living rooms, does it too.

    As far as I know, it IS uniquely human it to use an external medium to convey knowledge to large numbers of individuals. Perhaps if some future research shows that isn’t uniquely human either, we’ll just need to be more specific, like “convey knowledge via an external medium in the form of text” or “via the Internet to potentially millions of strangers”… I’m pretty sure no animals do that.

    I suppose that planning for the long term future IS uniquely human, though. Just a pity we are not that good at it yet … (and yes, I’m referring to the global environment, amongst other aspects of long term survival).

    • Don’t Even Try It!

      Squirrels and ants plan for the future as in stocking provisions for the coming winter, etc.

  • saymwah

    Why are structures in the brain always walnut-sized?

    • David Gibson

      Maybe the higher the level of control the more abstract and thus the less area that needs to be covered?

    • Erika Garms

      Very funny. I usually see the amygdalae compared to almonds. Certainly a NUT theme going on, but why?? Hmm. . .

  • Herne Webber

    Now all we have to do is breed out the monkey brain genes some people very obviously still have (okay, *seem* to have), and maybe we will be worthy of alien visitation. P.S., I think my spouse’s family is rife with monkey brains!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Luis E Lao

    As time passes and neuroscience and technology advances the brain and its mysteries will be solved. This is incredibly shrinking religion and religious beliefs.

    Finally, the new human being is emerging!

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