Is the Prefrontal Cortex Responsible for Long-Term Goals?

When you take a deep look at the brain’s anatomy, you’d be amazed at how each part is responsible for distinct functions and has particular roles. For example, behaviour, emotions, problem-solving, memory, planning, and many more things are part of the brain’s responsibility. 

However, one of the most important aspects of personal and professional life is our long-term goals, which fall in “Executive Functions.” 

But, what part of the brain is responsible for that? Let’s look at it in detail.

Executive Function: What’s that?

Executive functions relate to analyzing conflicting thoughts, settling between good and bad, predicting an outcome, controlling your emotions, and working towards a goal.

A top-down control process is required to kick off various neural operations to make the correct decision and take timely action. This top-down control process is known as executive control and undergoes in the brain region called the “prefrontal cortex.”

How do we know that for sure?

Studies have shown that human patients with damaged prefrontal cortex (due to accidental injury) exhibit poor decision-making, judgment, and planning. (Discussed in detail below.)

What is Prefrontal Cortex?

Our brain is divided into four lobes (regions): the frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes.

The part of the brain that covers the front part of the frontal lobe and rests behind our eyes and the forehead is termed the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC).

This region is responsible for executive functions such as controlling our personality, values, behavior, decision-making, and goals. However, out of all the primary functions of the prefrontal cortex, decision-making and goal-setting are considered to be the most essential processes of the executive functions.

Phineas Gage and the “Tamping Rod”

We have always learned about the functions of different brain regions once they are no longer capable of doing specific things due to damage or injury. Phineas Gage is the typical (and probably the first) example of such a case that suggests the brain’s role in determining executive functions.

Gage was a brilliant, energetic, and goal-oriented guy who achieved the “foreman” rank on an American construction project early in his career. Somehow, he survived a metal rod shot clear through his skull and brain during an unfortunate work-related accident.

He was miraculously stable even after an hour of the accident, but his prefrontal cortex was seriously damaged. On his way to recovery, Dr. John Harlow observed a change in Gage’s personality. Who was once a responsible, hard-working man now became an unstable, trouble-making drifter.

His mind was radically changed, and he was now unable to make decisions or judgments that could help him return to work. Even his ex-colleagues perceived him as someone not suitable to be allowed to the workplace.

His case was studied by neuroscientists and psychologists at the time and even in later years after his death. The findings of their study revealed that the damage to Gage’s prefrontal cortex had harmed not only his short-term and low-capacity memories but also stable long-term and high-capacity memories, which could help prioritize actions far into the future.

This clearly shows that the brain’s prefrontal cortex has a clear role in a person’s long-term goals.

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