Frontal Lobe: Characteristics and Function

The frontal lobe is one that allows us to think abstractly, plan or manipulate information actively. That is, it's linked to human cognition. However, it has many other functions: we'll tell you about them here!
Frontal Lobe: Characteristics and Function
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Written and verified by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana in 29 June, 2021.

Last update: 29 June, 2021

There are four lobes that make up the brain. One of them is the frontal lobe, a key structure that defines us as a species and that allows us to plan, imagine future abstract situations or control behavior, among other functions.

As we can see, this lobe allows us to control our more “animal” or emotional impulses (based on the limbic system) and to take our place in society. In this article, we’ll learn more about this structure, through a brief tour of its anatomy, how it works, and the functions it’s involved in.

Frontal lobe: definition

The frontal lobe is important.
The brain is a complex organ with many different and specialized areas.

As we said previously, the brain is divided into four lobes: the temporal, the occipital, the frontal, and the parietal. Each of these lobes fulfills a series of functions and is made up of different structures.

In the case of the frontal lobe, we’re speaking of an anatomical structure that’s located in the most frontal area of the brain. This is the part that’s closest to the face.

It’s separated from another lobe, the parietal, by a structure called the Rolandic fissure (or central fissure), and from the temporal lobe, by Silvio’s fissure (or the lateral fissure).

Characteristics

However, we’re not really just talking about one lobe here, but about two frontal lobes (one on each side of the brain, or cerebral hemisphere). In humans, the frontal lobes are the largest of all, and that’s because they take up a third of the entire cerebral cortex.

The frontal lobes, like the rest of the lobes, don’t work in isolation; they connect with the rest of the parts of the brain to carry out their functions.

The lobe that differentiates us as humans

We could say that, to a large extent, the frontal lobe is what differentiates us from the animal world. This is thanks to the highly developed functions that this lobe helps us to perform, and that’s what makes us human. We’re referring here to the brain’s executive functions.

Frontal lobe parts

We’ve seen in a very generic way what the anatomy of the frontal lobe is like. But what parts make up this brain structure? We’ll there are three specific areas, all especially related to movement:

The motor cortex

The motor cortex is the area involved in the planning, execution and control of movements. It composed, in turn, of the following structures:

  • Primary motor cortex (also called M1): This is where the spinal nerve impulses that activate certain muscles originate.
  • Pre-motor cortex (APM): This is responsible for helping our learning from past experiences influence our movement.
  • Supplementary motor area (AMS): This is involved in very precise movements (fine motor skills).

Prefrontal cortex

In this region, we find the ability to repress impulses and also to think abstractly. It allows us to imagine the future, hypothesize and internalize social norms, for example.

Broca’s area

Finally, another of the key structures in this lobe is Broca’s area. This structure is involved in carrying out specific movements in order to articulate speech (basically, it allows us to speak).

That is why people with a lesion in this area suffer from Broca’s aphasia, a language disorder of acquired origin.

Frontal lobe function

So, how does the frontal lobe operate? Broadly speaking, the lobes in each of the cerebral hemispheres (the left and the right) allow us to convert the information that comes to us from our surroundings, thus allowing the brain to “decide” what to do with this information.

The executive functions of the brain design an action plan to intervene effectively in the environment that surrounds us. This is how it helps us in all sorts of problem-solving activities, and is also related to intelligence.

Active subjects

The frontal lobe helps us to go from being passive subjects (who receive information) to being active subjects (who manipulate and use this information).

It helps us to respond to specific objectives that we can select from the information that comes to us from our surroundings (or from our learning and knowledge).

Executive functions

The frontal lobe is involved in several different brain functions, notably cognitive functions. Cognitive functions are those which are related to human cognition and decision-making.

These are complex cognitive processes, mental activities that we carry out to relate to our environment. They allow us to create, plan, prioritize certain tasks vs. others, or manage our time, among other functions.

These are functions that we carry out every day, many times without realizing it, but most of these processes can’t be performed by animals. Thus, these functions are related to memory, planning, solving specific problems, attention and concentration.

Other functions

We’ve seen how the frontal lobe enables cognitive functions, but it’s also involved in other types of functions (some of them cognitive functions). Among them, the following stand out:

Work memory

The frontal lobe is linked to working memory, which is a type of memory that allows the temporary storage of information (short-term memory) and the processing of said information.

In other words, working memory is a type of “active” memory that allows us to “save” the information we have in our minds and manipulate and use it for different purposes (especially for problem-solving).

This lobe manages this type of memory, and we know that when this structure is injured it affects memory function. Thus, the working memory made possible by the frontal lobe has a key role in keeping certain information in the memory, temporarily, in order to solve a problem in real-time.

Thanks to working memory we can perform complex tasks that require taking into account different factors or elements in our surroundings.

Planning

The frontal lobe is involved in planning.
Planning depends largely on the proper functioning of this lobe.

One of the cognitive functions that the frontal lobe takes care of is planning. Planning is the skill that allows us to organize our lives, set goals and fulfill them through a series of steps that we design.

Thus, this lobe also allows us to imagine plans and strategies in addition to anticipating the results we hope to obtain. With it, we create in our minds a series of imaginary scenarios, and it also allows us to imagine how we’ll use them to achieve our objectives.

In a way, the frontal lobe helps us imagine more abstract and longer-term goals than the rest of the brain lobes (some of them more focused on short-term goals).

Meta-thought

Meta-thought or meta-knowledge is the ability to think about one’s own thoughts (and about one’s own knowledge). It encompasses all the abstract knowledge that we have in mind, and which refers to knowledge and learning.

It’s an ability, also linked to the frontal lobe, that allows us to think abstractly about things that we have in our mind or in our imagination. It goes beyond what we see or feel at any given moment. It involves considering how we think, and this process is immersed in therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Behavioral control

Apart from cognitive abilities, the frontal lobe is also involved in processes such as controlling one’s own behavior. Thus, it’s a structure that allows us to control our own behavior and adapt it to the demands of the environment.

That’s why people with a frontal lobe injury have great difficulties in controlling their own behavior, with symptoms such as social disinhibition or poor impulse control.

More specifically, and at an anatomical level, it’s the orbital area of the frontal lobe (its lower area) that’s always related to the impulses that come from the limbic system (where emotions originate).

It allows us to manage self-control

One of the functions of this lobe is to cushion the effects of these signals that we’ve talked about, in order to reduce the probability of suffering an emotional outburst, for example.

In short, this lobe helps us to follow our plans without emotions or certain impulses impeding our chances of achieving them. There’s an intrinsic relationship with the capacity for self-control.

Teamwork

Like the rest of the brain lobes, the frontal lobe needs the other parts of the brain in order to function properly. It receives information from them, and it also coordinates with them in real-time and at great speed.

For example, if we want to initiate a sequence of voluntary movements, this lobe needs other structures to be activated, such as the basal ganglia (which allow the execution of automated movements, thanks to past experiences and repetition).

The frontal lobe is involved in movement, cognitive functions, and the control of one’s own behavior. However, it’s extremely complex, and contains many more substructures and functions than those mentioned.

To a large extent (although not totally), his research into this lobe looks into people who have suffered certain injuries in this area. For this reason, experts have been able to verify how it intervenes in so many functions in our bodies by the changes that occur when it’s injured.

It might interest you...
The Occipital Lobe: Characteristics and Function
Muy Salud
Read it in Muy Salud
The Occipital Lobe: Characteristics and Function

The occipital lobe is in charge of regulating and coordinating the processing of visual information. Learn more about him here!



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