Search

Brain and Learning

Select the tabs below to learn about brain anatomy, brain function, brain imaging, and neural activity associated with memory and learning:

  • Explore the anatomy of the brain.
  • Discover how memories are made (and how we know about them).
  • Examine images of the brain.
  • Find out if it is possible to multitask, do two things at once, while watching a video on distracted driving.

Visit our Brain Image Viewer Exhibit (opens in separate tab) 

Brain Anatomy

Explore the external and internal regions of the brain. Learn about the brain functions associated with each region.

Frontal Lobe

The frontal lobes serve a number of important roles in behavior, including planning and initiating movements, social and emotional processing, and attention. The frontal lobes are also involved in working memory as well as the ability to retrieve and store memories.

Occipital Lobe

The occipital lobes are responsible primarily for visual perception, and participate in some forms of visual short term memory.

Parietal Lobe

The parietal lobes are involved in sensing touch, as well as the spatial processing, language and memory.  In particular, the right parietal lobe is important for attention and non-verbal memory, whereas the left parietal lobe is important for language and verbal memory. 

Temporal Lobe

The temporal lobes are important for processing sound, as well as the ability to recognize and understand words and language. The temporal lobes are also involved in visual memory, allowing us to recognize our favorite chair or best friend’s face.

Cerebellum

The cerebellum is important for our ability to learn and perform skilled, coordinated movements like those used when, riding a bike, and also plays a role in attention.

Basal Ganglia

The Basal Ganglia are involved in initiating voluntary movements, and are involved in the ability to learn particular sequences of movement (such as those needed to type).

Amygdala

The amygdalae are involved in emotional processing, including the ability to recognize certain facial emotions (especially fear), and play a role in the formation of emotional memories. 

Hippocampus

The hippocampus is critical to the formation of new long-term memories, especially our ability to remember personal information and learn new facts.  The hippocampus also acts as a sort of internal “map” that allows us to navigate through our environment.  It acts in a wide range of different types of memory including declarative (remembering facts), episodic (remembering past personal events) and relational (the ability to make associations between information).

Pons

The pons is part of the brainstem, and is plays a role in controlling sleep, respiratory function, hearing, as well as motor control and touch in the region of the face.

Midbrain

The midbrain is part of the brainstem, and plays a primary role in sleep, arousal and temperature regulation, and motor control.

Medulla Oblongata

The medulla is part of the brainstem, and plays a major role in controlling cardiac and respiratory function.

Together, these structures form the brainstem, and are responsible for controlling the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, as well as regulating alertness and sensitivity to pain.

Thalamus

The thalamus is the main relay through which incoming sensory information passes before being sent to the cerebral cortex, and also helps regulate alertness and sleep.

Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus is responsible for controlling hunger, thirst, sleep and body temperature through the release of hormones, in conjunction with the pituitary gland.

Pituitary Gland

The pituitary sits below the hypothalamus, and is the primary hormone secreting structure in the brain. In conjunction with the hypothalamus, it is responsible for controlling hunger, thirst, sleep, and body temperature.

Back to top

Making Memories

Learn how memories are made. Find out how we know about memory and learning.

How are Memories Made?

Declarative Versus Procedural Memory

Declarative memory is the type of memory that most people think of when discussing memory. Declarative memories are memories of facts and events that people can consciously recall, while procedural memory refers to unconscious memory abilities, such as skill learning or habit learning.

Declarative Memory

Declarative memory refers to factual memories and autobiographical events that people can consciously recall. Four major steps of in memory formation include working memory, short-term memory, consolidation, and long-term memory. Each is distinct and depends on a different region of the brain to function. An example of declarative memory is the recollection of facts you learned in school such as the world’s capital cities.

Working Memory

Working memory allows people to hold limited amounts of information in the mind, which can then be manipulated to support other tasks like learning, reasoning, or acting. Information held in working memory typically lasts a short duration (a few seconds). An example is remembering that you are phoning the complaints department while you are waiting on hold.

Structures Involved:

  • Prefrontal Cortex
  • Hippocampus

Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory holds information that needs to be remembered, but not manipulated. People can typically hold around seven items in short-term memory, but that number can be improved through “chunking”. Chunking allows more information to be remembered by sorting objects into meaningful groups. An example is looking up a phone number then remembering it long enough to dial it.

Structures Involved:

  • Temporal lobe
  • Hippocampus

Consolidation

Memory consolidation is important to both declarative and procedural long-term memory. Sleep provides an off-line period that is favorable to memory consolidation.

Structures Involved:

  • Hippocampus
  • Temporal lobe

Long-Term Declarative Memory

The conscious memories that may be recalled years after learned or experienced. Long-term memories are stored in the cortex. The temporal lobe is no longer needed. An examples include the multiplication tables you learned in school or the name of your childhood pet.

Structures Involved:

  • Cortex

Long-Term Procedural Memory

Procedural memory refers to the collection of skills, habits, and dispositions that are inaccessible to conscious recollection. Examples of procedural memory formation have been demonstrated through skilled motor learning. Examples include riding a bike or driving a car.

Structures Involved:

  • Basal Ganglia
  • Cerebellum

Emotion

Heightened emotions can enhance both declarative and procedural memory, though the exact mechanism is unknown. This works through “conditioning,” which is a process that can encourage or discourage events or behavior through either reward or punishment.

Structures Involved:

  • Amygdala

How Do We Know About Learning and Memories?

Learn about the studies that have led to our knowledge of learning and memories.

Experiments That Have Shaped Our Understanding of Learning & Memory

Experiments with humans and animals have helped scientists understand how the brain learns and forms memories. Press the next button to learn how we know about working memory, long-term memory, procedural memory, and more.

Working Memory, Monkeys, & Delayed Response

A delayed response task was administered to trained monkeys by placing a piece of food in one of two boxes in a table. The monkey’s view of the objects was then blocked and the boxes were covered. After a delay, normal monkeys could remember the location of the food.  Monkeys that had damage to the prefrontal cortex could not remember and would reach randomly for the food.

 Memory & Patient H.M.

Scientists have learned a lot about memory from patients with amnesia. In the 1950s, doctors performed an operation on Patient H.M.’s temporal lobe and removed two-thirds of his hippocampus to relieve epilepsy. It cured his epilepsy but also cause him to lose his memory of most events in the years before the surgery, and to be unable to form new long-term memories. Older memories remained intact, and he had relatively intact short-term and procedural memory. This suggests the hippocampus is involved in long-term, declarative memory in particular.

Long-Term Memory

Studies indicate that over time, long-term memories are stabilized through a process called consolidation.  Following consolidation the hippocampus is no longer necessary for the storage of these memories.  This is why H.M. retained many of the memories formed prior to the removal of his hippocampus, because many of these older memories had already been consolidated. Another line of evidence is studies that looked a recall of Spanish up to 50 years after it was first learned in school.  The results showed that some information was stable over a long period of time.

 Processing During Sleep

Sleep may play an important role in memory consolidation. Scientists recorded the neural activity of rats being run through a maze. During sleep, the neural firings in the hippocampus and coordinated activity in the cortex repeated a similar pattern as was seen then the rats were in the maze. This suggests that sleep may be important for consolidating memories in the cortex.

Priming & Procedural Memory

Priming studies show how people are better able to process information that they have recently encountered. For example, subjects shown a series of objects will name an object faster if they seen it a short time earlier even if they don’t recall seeing the object. For amnesics like H.M., without memory of a previous encounter, the priming effect remained intact, indicating that priming is a form of non-declarative memory.

Conditioning & Memory

Conditioning is the learned association between a particular environmental stimulus and a behavioral response. Ivan Pavlov first detailed classical conditioning in his famous experiments with dogs. In those studies, Pavlov found that dogs could be trained to associate a previously neutral stimulus (a bell) with food. Eventually, the bell alone triggered salivation in the dogs, even when food was withheld.

Back to top

Brain Imaging

View images of the brain from healthy and unhealthy individuals, ranging in age from 2 weeks to 86 years.

Source: The University of Iowa, Carver College of Medicine, Department of Radiology

Infant: healthy, 2 weeks
Despite a massive overproduction of neurons, the brain remains immature at birth. The infant brain is approximately a quarter the size of the adult brain. While the spinal cord and brain stem are fairly well developed, the cerebral cortex is still rather primitive.

Source: The University of Iowa, Carver College of Medicine, Department of Radiology

Infant: Healthy, 13 months
The brain grows rapidly during the first year, and growth slows during the second. By the end of the first year, the brain will be approximately 72% its adult volume. Grey matter volume, which is made up of cell bodies, increases dramatically during the first year and reaches a lifetime maximum around age 2.

Source: Neuroimaging Informatics Tools and Resources, Commons License

Toddler & Preschool: Healthy, 5 years
Grey matter has started to decline, but white matter will increase well into adulthood.    White matter contains nerve fibers surrounded by a fat called myelin that gives it a white appearance. Myelin increases the speed of transmission of nerve signals. We start life with many more neurons and synapses than we will use. They are gradually pruned away throughout childhood.

Source: Neuroimaging Informatics Tools and Resources, Commons License

School-age: Healthy, 9 years
The growth in brain weight is beginning to level off, and will likely reach adult levels by age ten. While overall grey matter volume is declining, the changes are regionally specific. Grey matter increases in the frontal lobe and parietal lobe into preadolescence.

Source: The University of Iowa, Carver College of Medicine, Department of Radiology

Adolescence & Young Adult: Healthy, 15 years
Grey matter increases in the temporal lobe during adolescence with a slight decline thereafter. Grey matter also increases in the occipital lobe. The increase in grey matter during adolescence is important because there might be a second critical wave of overproduction and pruning of synapses and neurons.

Source: Open Access Series of Imaging Studies (OASIS)

Adolescent & Young Adult: Healthy, 28 years
The head has reached its maximum size. The thickness of cortical grey matter is thinner than that of children. The growth of white matter has leveled off.

Source: Open Access Series of Imaging Studies (OASIS)

Adult, Healthy, 46 years
This is the magnetic resonance images of a forty-six year old brain. The structure is relatively the same as the young adult, with the exception of their being less grey matter. This is an adult brain. Use it to compare healthy development in younger brains, older brains, and diseased brains.

 
Source: The University of Iowa, Carver College of Medicine, Department of Radiology

Old Age, Healthy, 70 years
Grey matter has continued to thin. There is some shrinkage of brain structures associated with aging, though many structures remain unaffected in healthy individuals.

Source: Open Access Series of Imaging Studies (OASIS)

Mid Cognitive Impairment or Early Alzheimer's Disease, 86 years
Images of an 86 year-old patient with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). AD is a form of dementia that affects memory, thinking, and behavior. Symptoms get worse over time. In these slides you can see atrophy or deterioration in the frontal lobe and temporal lobe

Source: The University of Iowa, Carver College of Medicine, Department of Radiology

Huntington's Diseases
Huntington’s disease is a genetic disease caused by a defect on chromosome 4. Early symptoms include changes in mood, memory, and other cognitive symptoms, but eventually, the disease will cause severe motor impairment, dementia, and death. In these slides you can see atrophy, or deterioration, of the basal ganglia, which is involved in normal motor functioning.

Source: The University of Iowa, Carver College of Medicine, Department of Radiology

Stroke
A stroke occurs when blood flow to a part of the brain stops due to a clogged or burst artery. Without blood or oxygen, brain cells begin to die. This patient had a stroke that damaged the temporal lobe and now suffers from Wernicke’s Aphasia. Patients with Wernicke’s aphasia can speak fluidly, but the content of their speech makes little sense.  These patients also have difficulty understanding the speech of others.

Back to top

Distracted Driving

The leading cause of death for Americans aged 5-34 is motor vehicle accidents. Driver behavior has been identified as the major factor in approximately 90 % of roadway accidents.  Learn more about the factors that can affect driving in the following videos.

We live in a multitasking world. Many of us switch our attention between texting, watching television, listening to music, surfing the internet and other tasks. Can we truly do two things at once or is multitasking diminishing our focus – in the classroom, at home and on the road? Driving, which requires focus, highlights the challenges of switching between tasks.