The Frontal Lobes [Key Stages 2-4]
What sorts of things do you have to STOP yourself doing?
What part of the brain is significantly larger in humans than any other animal?
Ask the audience to describe some of the things that are different about the human (right) and horse (left) brains.
Our ability for flexible thinking and behaviour is achieved by a part of the brain that has evolved to control our thoughts and behaviours. One of the main differences between human and animal brains is the size of this structure at the front.
Primates, and humans in particular, have enlarged frontal parts of the brain that control flexible thinking and creativity. These regions are called the “frontal lobes” and are connected with just about every other region of the brain, as well as the deeper structures that are responsible for things like long term memory and behaviour.The frontal parts of the brain regulate our behaviour by drawing up a priority list of things to do and coordinating our activities. The frontal lobes delegate and prioritise jobs.
That is why it is important to protect these regions from damage. If you damage your frontal lobes you lose these skills. We know this from a famous case of frontal lobe injury.
Portrait of Phineas Gage
In 1838 Phineas Gage was working on a railroad in America when a colleague distracted him and he dropped a metal rod onto an explosive charge, setting it off and sending the rod right through his skull and out the top of his head. Unbelievably, he survived but had lost a large part of his frontal lobes.
According to records, before the accident Phineas had been mild mannered but after the accident his personality changed. He swore more frequently, became more irritable with other people. He became very emotionally unstable. In short Phineas Gage survived but he was no longer the same man.
You don’t have to have metal rod shot through your head to see the effects of frontal lobe damage. Various drugs such as alcohol can impair frontal lobe activity and make people behave differently to the way they do when they are sober.
Q: How can you protect your frontal lobes from getting damaged?
A: One very important way that you can protect your frontal lobes from getting damaged is to make sure you wear a helmet whenever you are doing anything where you could fall such as riding a bike or a skateboard or when you are skiing.
Q: Why did Phineas Gage’s personality change?
A: Because he had severe damage to his frontal lobes, an area of the brain responsible for bringing together different sources of information and creating a person’s personality and social reasoning.
Alcohol and the Frontal Lobes [Key Stages 2 - 4]
How does alcohol effect the brain?
In the following video, the members of the audience are given goggles to wear that disrupt their vision and co-ordination in a similar way to alcohol.
But alcohol doesn’t just affect your vision, it changes your judgement as well. This is one reason why drinking can be so dangerous because motor skills and judgment is impaired.The frontal lobes are also the last to mature as we grow up. Which means that younger children have less control over their thoughts and behaviours than sober adults.
Q: In the video, what parts of the students’ behaviour is affected?
A: The booze googles affected the students’ eyesight which made their co-ordination and responses much more difficult for them to control.
Q: Why is it illegal to drive when you have been drinking?
A: Driving is a very complicated action that requires your brain, and especially your frontal lobes, to be working properly so that you can perform all the different tasks in the right way, to make sensible decisions and to respond quickly to other cars around you. When you drink alcohol, these responses are affected and so driving can become very dangerous for you and other people on the road.
Complex Planning: Zombie Island [Key Stages 3 & 4]
How does the brain plan things in the future?
As well as controlling our behaviour, the frontal lobes are the part of the brain that we use to plan things in the future.
Ask 4 volunteers up from the audience. It may help to have something to distinguish them as the different characters – you can download a zombie mask from here http://familyfun.go.com/assets/cms/pdf/printables/zombie-mask-halloween-printable-R-kbz-012.pdf. Give each volunteer a role and then present them with the following problem.
One will be your research assistant, one will be a zombie, one a normal child, and one a bar of chocolate.
Tell them the following:
“The research assistant needs to transport each of these characters to my lab on the other side of the lake [point to a far corner]. But the boat can only take one thing at once and we need to be careful. We can’t leave the zombie and the child alone together, because zombies eat children. And we can’t leave the child and the chocolate alone together, because children eat chocolate. So I want you to figure out how you’re going to get all of these things one by one to my lab without leaving them alone”.
Let the volunteer figure it out. If they are struggling encourage the audience to help them. (Don’t worry about needing a raft, its fine to imagine one).
Answer: Take the child over and leave it on the island. Take the zombie over and pick up the child and take it back. Take the chocolate over. Come back and take the child back over.
This video shows a volunteer solving the problem.
Explain that in order to solve the problem the volunteer had to imagine the consequences of their different actions and decide which was the best strategy to use. They had to imagine different outcomes and then select between them. This sort of complex reasoning takes place in the frontal lobes.
Q: Why is this problem difficult to solve?
A: This problem is difficult to solve because there are lots of alternative options for the volunteer to decide between and he needs to keep them in mind and compare them to decide which one to follow. It is also difficult because many people don’t realise at first that you can bring things back from the lab.
Q: Do you think adults would be better at solving this task than children?
A: Its possible that adults would be able to solve this problem easier than children because they have more mature frontal lobes which are necessary to keep multiple things in mind and comparing them to choose the best option.
Mental flexibility and multi-tasking [All Ages]
How do you do two things at once?
Different thoughts are co-ordinated in the frontal lobes but sometimes they can become overloaded and get confused. Complicated tasks require skill and coordination. This coordination enables us to do more than one thing at the same time such as text your friends while watching TV. We can do two things at once so long as the different tasks do not compete for the same part of brain. But what happens if they do?
Ask 3 volunteers to come up and have three seats ready for them in a row, facing the audience. Ask them to stick their leg out and rotate it clockwise. After they have done that for a few revolutions, ask them to start drawing a large number ‘6’ in the air with one of their hands. Most people’s will have difficulty doing both at once.
Explain that we call this effect ‘interference’ because the movement centres in your brain are trying to balance the need to rotate your leg clockwise in one direction with the need to draw a six, in the opposite direction. With enough practice people can overcome many interference effects.
Q: Can you think of other tasks that cause interference?
A: Most things will interfere if they take up enough attention. Ask the audience if they have ever been concentrating on the TV so much that they didn’t hear their mother speaking to them, or thinking so hard about something that they didn’t hear the teacher ask them a question. One common interference game that people play is rubbing their stomach and circling their head and then trying to swap – these tasks interfere because they are both using the motor part of the brain. Also, try saying your times tables while writing a text message – these tasks interfere because they both use the language parts of the brain.
Q: Why does interference occur?
A: Interference occurs because two tasks are competing for the same part of the brain and it gets overloaded or confused. Interference can be even worse if the brain is already under alot of pressure, for instance, if you are trying to complete a task very fast or if you are very tired or not feeling well. Under such circumstances, the brain often mutlitasks very badly.
One Man Band [All Ages]
Have you ever been in a situation where you are trying to perform one task but something else seems to be getting in the way of you doing it properly?
Interference occurs when two tasks try to use the same area of the brain and it gets confused. However, with enough practice, people can overcome interference and start doing even very complex tasks at the same time.
Here is an example of someone who, through practice, has been able to overcome the interference between playing all the different instruments.
Video of a one man band:
Explain that it’s a bit like juggling which requires coordinating actions that are not naturally associated in our brains. You can eventually master these sorts of tasks but they initially require mental effort, which is part of your frontal brain function.
Q: Why is playing lots of instruments at the same time difficult?
A: Because they all make use of the motor area of the brain which is responsible for telling the body how to act. To play them all at once puts alot of pressure on the frontal lobes which are responsible for co-ordinating different thoughts and actions.
Q: How is the one-man-band able to play all of the instruments at once?
A: The one-man-band is able to play all of the instruments at once because he started off learning one at a time until he didn’t have to think very much about it because it was mostly automatic. Then he practiced a great deal with all of the instruments until he could play them all at the same time. It is very difficult for the brain to concentrate on multiple things at once so it is likely that his attention passes very quickly from one instrument to the next when he is playing, rather than thinking about them all at once.
The Stroop Task: When two tasks compete [Key Stages 2-4]
Some activities, like breathing, are not under conscious control. Other activities, like doing your homework, require more effort and require you to block out other things that might get in the way. Another important function of the frontal lobes is blocking out information that will interfere with the task you want to complete.
Some behaviours are automatic so your brain has to make a real effort to stop you doing them. Imagine being in a loud place while trying to do your homework – its automatic to listen to the sounds around you but you would need to try and stop listening to be able to concentrate on your work.
Because we do so much reading, it is one activity that becomes automatic: when you see something written down your brain immediately tries to read it even if you’re not consciously trying to. The following task is a good example of this. Play all three experiments on mute and ask the audience to shout out the colour of the ink (not read the word) on each page. Most people will find sections one and two very easy but have difficulty with section three.
Explain that the reason the third one is so much harder is because reading and naming colours requires the same part of your brain. Because your reading has become automatic its difficult to inhibit the urge to say the word rather than the colour. This is why you read the words slower when it was a colour word written in a different colour ink than when it was a colour word written in the same colour ink or not a colour word at all. In order to perform these tasks that compete for the same part of brain, we have to use our frontal lobes to decide what to pay attention to.
Q: Why is reading the colour of the ink in the last video harder?
A: Because the area of our brain responsible for reading colour words and associating them with the colour of the ink gets confused. Its easier to ignore the words you are reading when they are not colours (as in the first video) but when they are colour words your brain takes a little longer to decide which one to say out loud – the colour that is written or the colour of the ink.
Q: Why do you think it might be useful that reading is automatic?
A: When a task becomes automatic it means that it requires less conscious effort to do. This is useful for reading because it means that most of your brain’s resources can concentrate on thinking about what you are reading rather than how to read. This is useful for other tasks as well such as learning to walk, learning to drive or learning to play a musical instrument. When we practice enough to make the action automatic it means we have more space in our brains to do other things at the same time.