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The Brain’s Central Planner

By: , Posted on: August 13, 2015


Whether occurring by natural selection or by genetic mutation, evolution does not predict. Evolutionary biology consists of a large body of inferences about the past extracted from a large body of observations of nature.  It is essentially a post-dictive science.  Yet, by nothing short of a biological miracle, in the last 250,000 years evolution has created in the human brain a uniquely predictive structure: the prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobes.  We can say with impunity that the prefrontal cortex opened the human brain to the future.  Curiously, therefore, evolution has incremented the spatial “pre” of the term “prefrontal” with a temporal “pre.”  Consequently, whereas evolutionary change is adaptive for the population, the prefrontal cortex makes the human brain a truly predictive and pre-adaptive organ for the individual.  With the prefrontal cortex, that individual not only can predict events in its environment but also predict itself adapting to them.  Thus, for the first time in evolution, the organism can pre-adapt to the changes it can predict.

In this manner, from the ability to predict the self and the environment, and the relations between the two, derives the unique role of the prefrontal cortex in planning and creativity.  The human prefrontal cortex expands by a quantum leap—literally forward–the rudimentary capacity for future planning that we attribute to the chimpanzee.   In sum, the prefrontal cortex, the vanguard of evolution, has enabled us to fill our future with purpose.  All of that has occurred not so much by the evolutionary increase in volume and cells of the prefrontal cortex as by the exponential increase of fiber connections with itself and with other structures of the brain.

Indeed, the prefrontal cortex of the human appears driven by the future to the future.  In other words, it appears to be a teleological part of the brain.  At first blush, this implies an absurdity. Teleology is scientifically absurd, inasmuch as it reverses the physical order from cause to effect.  But close analysis reveals that there is no such reversal in the brain.  Future purpose is still the raison d’être of the prefrontal cortex, but it is firmly based in the past.  Every new plan or creation is basically the reconfiguration of past memory and experience for a future purpose or goal.  This is achieved by the control that the prefrontal cortex exerts over other cortical areas representing perceptual and executive memory.

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.  So it is that the prefrontal cortex, which is the last to develop in evolution, is also the last to develop in the individual.  The same is true for its temporally prospective functions of planning and of controlling the internal impulses that might block or derail that planning.  The prefrontal cortex does not reach full maturity until the third decade of life.  It is a long process accompanied by the enablement of progressively more elaborate and longer-term plans.  The young child lives here and now, unable to delay gratification.   It is not before adolescence and young adulthood that, thanks to prefrontal maturation, that human being can begin forming and executing purposeful new plans.  Lags in that maturation lead to troubles in attention to the future, however immediate that future may be, and to learning disabilities.

About the Author:

Joaquin FusterDr. Joaquin M. Fuster was born in Barcelona, Spain, in 1930. Studied medicine at the University of Barcelona. In Barcelona and Innsbruck (Austria), he specialized in psychiatry. In 1957 Fuster emigrated to the United States for a career in neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1962-64, he worked as a visiting scientist at the Max-Planck Institute for Psychiatry in Munich. He received his PhD. in neuroscience at the University of Granada, Spain. Dr. Fuster is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and a member of the Brain Research Institute and the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the UCLA’s School of Medicine.

Dr. Fuster’s major honors and awards include: the title of Member of Honor of the Spanish Royal Academy of Medicine (1997); Signoret Prize (Université de La Sorbonne, Paris) (2000); Fyssen International Science Prize (2000); Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad Miguel Hernández, Alicante, Spain (2003); Goldman-Rakic Prize for Cognitive Neuroscience (NARSAD) (2006); George Miller Prize of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (2006); Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (2008); Geschwind Lecturer, Harvard University (2009); Woolsey Lecturer, University of Wisconsin (2010); Elected Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2010); Segerfalk Lecturer, University of Lund, Sweden (2010); Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala (2014). Dr. Fuster is the author of more than 200 articles and 8 books.

For more information, the recently revised edition of Dr. Fuster’s book, The Prefrontal Cortex, Fifth Edition, provides a thoroughly updated version of this comprehensive work that has historically served as the classic reference on this part of the brain. The book offers a unifying, interdisciplinary perspective that is lacking in other volumes written about the frontal lobes, and is, once again, written by the award-winning author who discovered “memory cells,” the physiological substrate of working memory.

prefrontal cortex

The fifth edition constitutes a comprehensive update, including all the major advances made on the physiology and cognitive neuroscience of the region since publication in 2008.

All chapters have been fully revised, and the overview of prefrontal functions now interprets experimental data within the theoretical framework of the new paradigm of cortical structure and dynamics (the Cognit Paradigm), addressing the accompanying social, economic, and cultural implications.

To order your print copy, visit the Elsevier Store. Apply discount code STC315 to receive up to 30% off the list price and free global shipping. If you prefer an e-copy, you can access it on ScienceDirect.

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