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7.2. The Real Parts of the Brain


How To Invent (Almost) Anything > 7. How The Brain Works > 7.2. The Real Parts of the Brain

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The brain is made up of three main parts. The bit that we usually envisage when we hear the word ‘brain’ is the cortex. This is the crinkly big walnut at the top that often features in biology lessons and science fiction films.

The cortex does a great deal of processing, most of which we are entirely unaware. It is a curious paradox that although it seems like this is the part that makes we humans very intelligent, but if it gets damaged it often seems not to have much effect! It is highly connected to all the other parts of the brain and interacts frequently with them.

You might think that if it does all this processing of information then what it does reflects mostly the input from our senses. But the latest research suggests that in fact what it processes is as much influenced by what the other parts of the brain suggest should be there as what is there. In other words if you so strongly believe you will see a ghost (or your partner when out on an illicit date!) then that is what you will see. In fact, in order to deal with the complexity we have to deal with, it seems likely that the brain is constantly predicting what you see and processing what it thinks you will see before you see it. We live mostly in the world of our imagination and only when the real data coming in hits us very hard will we take that much notice of it. This helps to explain why creativity can be difficult without help: you do not even see the creative idea because you are not expecting it.

The rest of the brain is made up of a number of individual parts, some quite small, although size is not an indicator of importance. These parts are smaller than the cortex but are much more susceptible to damage. You can think of these as the main process managers. If they go wrong you are in trouble.

The limbic system or ‘leopard brain’ contains emotional controls and basic reactions such as the fight or flight response.

Below the leopard brain is the more primitive ‘lizard brain’ which controls basic functions such as breathing, digestion and circulation. To make a nice set of three ‘Ls’ the upper cortex gets called the ‘learning brain,’ reflecting that this is where we consciously think, learn and create.

Fig. 7.1 Bits of the Brain

Some, but not all, of the more interesting parts of the mid and lower brain are as follows:


This is a little powerhouse in the middle of the brain which houses many of the basic animal drives, including the ‘four Fs’ of feeding, fighting, fleeing and fornication. It is also affects temperature control, sleep and emotions.

Being outside the cortex means that all of these potential inhibitors of creativity are outside of our direct conscious control, and can (and do) interrupt us at the most inconvenient moments.


All senses except the sense of smell, which goes straight into the brain, pass via the thalamus, which acts as a communications centre, passing information to various parts of the cortex. The route from the outside world to our conscious perceptions of them is by no means direct.


Long-term memories do not go directly to the cortex, but are laid down by the hippocampus. It does this by replaying experiences to the cortex, including in dreams.


This little button-like system acts as a bypass to the conscious mind, causing us to react unthinkingly to such situations as a falling branch or child tumbling into a river. When people say, “I just didn’t think about it,” they are probably right. It also drives many of our fears, causing primitive and phobic reactions.

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