Chapter 4. Brains, Bodies, and Behaviour

4.5 Chapter Summary

All human behaviour, thoughts, and feelings are produced by the actions of our brains, nerves, muscles, and glands.

The body is controlled by the nervous system, consisting of the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS) and the endocrine system, which is made up of glands that create and control hormones.

Neurons are the cells in the nervous system. Neurons are composed of a soma that contains the nucleus of the cell; a dendrite that collects information from other cells and sends the information to the soma; and a long segmented fiber, known as the axon, which transmits information away from the cell body toward other neurons and to the muscles and glands.

The nervous system operates using an electrochemical process. An electrical charge moves through the neuron itself, and chemicals are used to transmit information between neurons. Within the neuron, the electrical charge occurs in the form of an action potential. The action potential operates in an all-or-nothing manner.

Neurons are separated by junction areas known as synapses. Neurotransmitters travel across the synaptic space between the terminal button of one neuron and the dendrites of other neurons, where they bind to the dendrites in the neighboring neurons. More than 100 chemical substances produced in the body have been identified as neurotransmitters, and these substances have a wide and profound effect on emotion, cognition, and behaviour.

Drugs that we ingest may either mimic (agonists) or block (antagonists) the operations of neurotransmitters.

The brains of all animals are layered and generally quite similar in overall form.

The brain stem is the oldest and innermost region of the brain. It controls the most basic functions of life, including breathing, attention, and motor responses. The brain stem includes the medulla, the pons, and the reticular formation.

Above the brain stem are other parts of the old brain involved in the processing of behaviour and emotions, including the thalamus, the cerebellum, and the limbic system. The limbic system includes the amygdala, the hypothalamus, and the hippocampus.

The cerebral cortex contains about 20 billion nerve cells and 300 trillion synaptic connections, and it’s supported by billions more glial cells that surround and link to the neurons. The cerebral cortex is divided into two hemispheres, and each hemisphere is divided into four lobes, each separated by folds known as fissures.

The frontal lobe is primarily responsible for thinking, planning, memory, and judgment. The parietal lobe is responsible for processing information about touch. The occipital lobe processes visual information, and the temporal lobe is responsible for hearing and language. The cortex also includes the motor cortex, the somatosensory cortex, the visual cortex, the auditory cortex, and the association areas.

The brain can develop new neurons, a process known as neurogenesis, as well as new routes for neural communications (neuroplasticity).

Psychologists study the brain using cadaver and lesion approaches, as well as through neuroimaging techniques that include electroencephalography (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

Sensory (afferent) neurons carry information from the sensory receptors, whereas motor (efferent) neurons transmit information to the muscles and glands. Interneurons, by far the most common of neurons, are located primarily within the CNS and responsible for communicating among the neurons.

The peripheral nervous system is itself divided into two subsystems, one controlling internal responses (the autonomic nervous system, ANS) and one controlling external responses (the somatic nervous system). The sympathetic division of the ANS is involved in preparing the body for behaviour by activating the organs and the glands in the endocrine system. The parasympathetic division of the ANS tends to calm the body by slowing the heart and breathing and by allowing the body to recover from the activities that the sympathetic system causes.

Glands in the endocrine system include the pituitary gland, the pancreas, the adrenal glands, and the male and female sex glands. The male sex hormone testosterone and the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone play important roles in behaviour and contribute to gender differences.