Functions of the brain
Place your mouse on the question marks above to see the actions of the different zones.
The frontal lobe controls conscious and voluntary behavior, helps suppress socially unacceptable action, and provides you with the ability to be ‘rational’. Emotional regulation happens here; this part of the brain helps you empathize, sympathize, and critically, plan motivated action. In the context of eating, when you see pictures of food, or food logos, this part of the brain helps you decide how to obtain (or refrain from) them.
The temporal lobe includes the hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus. Each of these plays a key role in eating motivation and for more information please see Brain Science Two: The Temporal Lobe and Pleasure Eating.
Processing of sensory information occurs within this part of the brain. The parietal lobe integrates sensory information from different modalities, particularly in spatial sense and navigation. This is where letters form words, and words combine into full thoughts. While this may have some relation to food related cognition, this part of the brain has less direct influence on eating behaviour as the frontal or temporal lobes.
A significant functional aspect of the occipital lobe is that it contains the primary visual cortex, which plays an important role in identifying which foods you prefer.
The cerebellum is responsible for motor control. There is some evidence of cognitive functions, such as attention, language and regulating pleasure and fear responses; however, by and large this area is recognized for its association with coordinating movement, precision, and accurate timing.
Taste perception can be traced to this part of the brain. Since the most basic feelings of pleasure and reward occur in this part of the brain, it could be argued that most food decisions start and end within the brainstem. Food preference and food craving are controlled by three different pathways that each begin within the brainsteam (the dopamine reward pathway, mesolimbic dopamine reward pathway, and serotonergic pathway). For a an idea of how this works, please see here.
The Brain and Eating: How does it work?
Within the brain, there are discrete regions associated with controlling different behaviors. For example, the lobes at the front of the brain, above the eyes, are involved in juggling complex trains of thought; activity here helps to form our personalities. In contrast, deep in the base of the brain, and near the top of the spinal cord, is the amygdala,which is known to be involved in producing primitive and instinctive emotional responses such as fear and dislike.
Different brain regions contribute to each one of our actions, and the brain works in a system to help us make the best decisions possible. The following diagram provides a brief description of each region of the brain, and how it contributes to eating motivation.
Food consumption is regulated by internal, physiological signals from the body (e.g., hunger signals, hormones, sleep cycles), as well as by external, environmental signals e.g., food cues/advertisements, rewards, places, times, and people can all serve as reminders to eat). This is a highly complex issue! The motivation to eat is not only controlled by basic energy and nutrient needs,it is also an act of pleasure. The psychology of reward and pleasure involved with eating lends itself to some fascinating insights into our brain, basic motivation, and complex reasoning.
An important point: The “top half” of the brain is primarily dedicated to integrating sensory information, and providing sufficient information for future planning. The “bottom half” is responsible for subconscious feelings and sensing the consequences of our actions.
The following interactive picture describes some of this complexity.