Why is the prefrontal cortex so important?
The prefrontal cortex is located in our frontal lobe, the part of our brain at the very front of our head. The prefrontal cortex is involved in executive functions, or the higher cognitive functions, of our brain. Executive functions act as the chief’s executive officer and include memory, attention, flexibility, planning, and problem solving. For example, the prefrontal cortex is involved in decision making by considering past events and experiences in order to make the best choices. The prefrontal cortex also plays a role in short term memory. It also affects things like holding conversations, reasoning, self-monitoring and time management.
The prefrontal cortex is one of the slowest parts of the brain to develop, only reaching full maturity in our mid-twenties. This can explain why children and teenagers are more prone to risk-taking behaviour, while adults are generally better at planning ahead and reasoning.
Individuals who suffer damage to the prefrontal cortex will often continue to have normal movement abilities and intelligence. However, they frequently display difficulties with executive functions such as memory and attention. Damage to the prefrontal cortex can also cause personality changes, abnormal emotional responses, and difficulty in functioning in daily life.
Phineas Gage is a classic neuropsychological example of the effects of prefrontal cortex damage. Gage was a railroad worker who suffered an accident in which a metal rod was driven through his frontal lobe. He survived the accident, but his friends remarked that his personality changed drastically – he was “no longer Gage”. Recently, it has been debated as to whether the extent of Gage’s transformation has been exaggerated (read more here: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-21/edition-9/phineas-gage-unravelling-myth).
As the prefrontal cortex is linked to so many critical functions – memory, attention, decision making, reasoning – it is clear that it is an important part of our brain, particularly for children. The development of the prefrontal cortex is essential for young children to begin to engage with and navigate the world around them.
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