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The brain's function as part of the Central Nervous System (CNS) is to regulate the majority of our body and mind's functions. This includes vital functions like breathing or heart rate, going from basic functions like sleeping, eating, or sexual instinct, to superior functions like thinking, remembering, reasoning, or talking. In order to carry-out any seemingly simple task, our brain has to perform thousands of processes to ensure that we properly complete the task. Proper brain function is the key to a healthy life.
On our parts of the brain page, we mention that basic vital functions are measured by the oldest brain structures. In other words, the structures located in the hindbrain (medulla, pons, cerebellum), and in the midbrain. However, superior brain functions, like reasoning, memory, and attention, are controlled by the hemispheres and lobes that form part of the cortex.
What are cognitive functions?
Cognitive functions are the mental processes that allow us to receive, select, store, transform, develop, and recover information that we've received from external stimuli. This process allows us to understand and relate to the world around more effectively.
We are constantly using our brain functions - It's impossible to do almost anything without engaging at least some of the cognitive functions that we have available to us. For example, Do you want some breakfast? Thinking about starting a book? Do you have to drive anywhere? Are you having an interesting conversation with your friends?
All of the activities that we do everyday require millions of connections and complex mental calculations between the different parts of the brain in order to properly immerse ourselves in the world around us.
What are the main cognitive functions?
Often times when we talk about superior cognitive functions, we're referring to the cognitive skills that we use in order to understand and interact with the world. Although sometimes we study them as separate ideas, we have to remember that cognitive functions are always interrelated and that sometimes they overlap. We'll take a look at the main brain functions:
ATTENTION: Attention is a complex mental process that cannot be reduced to one simple definition, one concrete anatomical structure, and that cannot be assessed by one single test as it encompasses diverse processes. To simplify, attention is the cognitive or brain function that we use to select between stimuli that reach our brain simultaneously, both external (smells, sounds, images...) and internal (thoughts, emotions...), that are useful for carrying-out a mental or motor activity. In reality, it is a whole set of processes that vary in complexity and allow us to carry-out the rest of our cognitive functions well. Attention can broken into different types depending on its complexity.
MEMORY: Memory is a complex process that allows us to code, store, and recover information. If the attentional system doesn't work properly, we won't be as efficient in doing such tasks. If we don't pay attention to something, we cannot code, store, or recover this information. In order to understand memory, we can classify it according to two criteria:
EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONS: Executive functions are the most complex cognitive functions. While there are different definitions for cognitive functions, most of them include cognition control and thought and behavior control through various related processes. They comprise a set of complex skills, like attention focus, planning, programming, regulation, and intentional behavior verification. Executive functions are located in the frontal lobe. According to Lezack, these functions can be grouped into a series of components:
LANGUAGE: Language is a symbolic communication system that is presented through languages. Language isn't only important for communicating with others, but also for structuring our internal thoughts. Language processing uses different brain areas that act together through different functional systems that involve the left hemisphere especially. We could talk about two cortical areas that are in charge of expression and reception of language, mainly in the left cerebral hemisphere:
VISUAL-PERCEPTIVE AND VISUAL-SPATIAL FUNCTIONS: Visual-perceptive functions are the functions that allow us to recognize and differentiate between stimuli. They help us interpret, attribute, and associate what we're seeing into known categories and integrate them into our knowledge. When these functions work properly, we are able to recognize friends' and family's faces, or distinguish between keys, a hat, and a comb.
Why do we use brain functions?
In the course of just one day, we use our brain functions constantly. Thousands of tasks are being performed, which require milliones of complex mental calculations from different parts of the brain. Here we will show you some examples of you will use these cognitive skills and brain functions daily in a multitude of tasks.
- Making food is good for your brain? When you're cooking, you have to watch various pots and pans at the same time, all while attending to your guests and the recipe.
- Run a meeting? Properly running a business or family meeting is a complex task. It requires your brain to activate determined neural networks and brain functions related to attention, concentration, active listening capacity, response speed, etc.
- Fly a kite? Most people assume that relaxation comes naturally, but you couldn't do it without a few key cognitive abilities.
- Drive a car? Even if you're an experienced driver, getting to your destination quickly and safely requires skill, concentration and a wide array of cognitive abilities.
- Meet with friends? Life would be lonely without the cognitive skills that allow us to meet and greet one another.
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