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Introduction to the brain. Part 5: the temporal lobe

In the last part of our short series on parts of the brain, we will look at the temporal lobe. The brain is divided into four main lobes and the temporal one lies at the bottom in the center. It gets its name from the fact that it is placed between the temples on either side of the the head.

Temporal lobe - lateral view

The difference between hearing and understanding

The temporal lobe is particularly important for our sense of hearing. This means much more than just converting sound waves into sounds. The temporal lobe is also responsible for interpreting sounds. When we hear someone speak, we intuitively divide up the noise into meaningful chunks such as words or phrases. Without this faculty, the sounds we hear would be random noise. The temporal lobe is where we learn to match particular sounds to a particular meaning, and instantly recall that meaning whenever we hear that sound.

Remembering faces

Most people can recognize someone’s face after only meeting them once. Few of us, though, could identify an individual tree, mountain, or rock unless we were quite familiar with it. All of these things vary as much as the human face, if not more; the difference is in our minds. The brain is programmed to quickly recognize a human face, take a snapshot of it, then attach it to a particular person. Once again, something we take for granted is based on some enormously sophisticated engineering. People with prosopagnosia, or ‘face blindness’, face a daily struggle to identify even colleagues they work with every day. To them, the tiny differences in facial appearance that allow us to identify people are processed by the brain in the same way as the difference between two pieces of broccoli. They are forced to recognize people by other markers and can be completely thrown off by a new haircut. Some people are born with this condition, but others develop it as result of a brain injury. Interestingly, the form of face blindness changes depending on the location of the injury. Those with injuries in the occipatal lobe (at the back of the head) find it very hard to distinguish between two different faces. If the injury lies in the temporal lobe, however, they are better at telling the difference between faces, but worse at remembering them. It looks like the brain takes the snapshot, but then doesn’t know where to file it away.

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