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The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind

The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind by Elkhonon Goldberg

Author: Elkhonon Goldberg

The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind

The frontal lobes of the brain are important! Only with the advent of sophisticated brain imaging techniques have we become aware just how important. Goldberg's thought-provoking and readable account likens the frontal lobes to an orchestra conductor­influencing, directing, planning and moderating many other brain functions. Or perhaps a chief executive.

We learn that as well as playing this leadership role, the frontal lobes are the 'seat of the self', as they are instrumental (to extend the metaphor) in reasoning, social maturity/impulse control and delay of gratification. The brain's structure can be compared with the different strata you sometimes see in cliffs ­ where the top levels show the most recently laid down material. The frontal lobes are the most recent part of the brain to develop and mark us out as human.

A high degree of complexity (and boy! is the brain complex ­ too much for my brain!) cannot be handled by rigid systems. Complexity requires distributed responsibilities and flexible local self-management ­ and the over-seer of these 'management levels' are your pre-frontals. The frontal lobes gave the brain the massive computational power to which we owe such achievements as the building of the pyramids, the discovery of penicillin and the invention (alas) of the atomic bomb.

We have further evolved frontal lobes than any other species. Frontal lobe development enabled us to imagine, plan and develop civilization. When the frontal lobes get damaged, people lose their 'spark', or find themselves struggling with anger and impulse control problems. People can also lose their creativity and exhibit what Goldberg describes as 'stiffness of the mind'.

Maturation of the frontal lobes isn't complete until around the age of twenty ­ so weary parents can console themselves with the thought that the uncontrolled behaviour of their offspring is (at least in part) really just a stage they are going through.

It is within the frontal lobes that consequences are considered and, interestingly, it is your frontal lobes which allow things to be kept in mind when out of sight ­ so long term goals can be resumed even after distraction has occurred. This capacity directly contributed to the rise of civilization. The frontal lobes also manage ambiguous decision making, where there is no obvious or definitive right answer. This links to Goldberg's observation that the frontal lobes of depressed people are less active­resumed prefrontal lobe activity is associated with coming out of depression. He also describes schizophrenia as a 'frontal lobe disorder'.

If long term planning, seeing likely multiple consequences to actions and delaying gratification are functions of the frontal lobes, then Goldberg gives a great example of how he himself used his 'front brain' to escape from the repressive Russian authorities in the early sixties. And how the cumbersome Russian system itself behaved in many ways like a brain without a frontal lobe.

Goldberg makes neuro-science accessible without ever letting you lose a sense of wonder at the sheer power of the human brain. He has interesting things to say about the 'use it or lose it' theory of 'brain exercise' to ward off aging of the brain, and gives vivid portrayals of frontal breakdown disorders such as Tourette's Syndrome and dementia. One thing seems sure to me reading this book; if we could all use our frontal lobes constructively a little more humanity would be a lot better off.

Review by Mark Tyrrell

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Mark Tyrrell
Creative Director