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Bilateral Activation & Cognitive Functioning: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:04 Brain Activation
  • 2:44 Lateral Activation
  • 4:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

This lesson looks into what bilateral and unilateral activation is, as well as the machines that allow us to perceive the electrical activity of the brain.

Brain Activation

The brain is an amazingly powerful and fascinating watery lump of fat and specialized cells. It creates who we are, from the moment of our birth to the second of our death. And it really bothers me when people who don't know what they are talking about make statements as if they were experts. One of the most common ones that floats around is 'we only use 10% of our brain.' Everyone has probably heard this, and it is wrong. We use all of our brain, just not all the time.

The brain is made up of neurons and helper cells. We are going to focus on the neurons because they represent the most active and dynamic aspect of the brain. The helper cells do stuff too, but structure, clean up, and forming barriers just isn't exciting. When we look at neurons, we see they are capable of changing their electrical charge via specialized gates in their cell membrane. This means that when the gates are triggered, the neuron goes from slightly negatively charged to slightly positively charged.

Recent estimates are that a brain is made up of about 86 billion neurons, each connecting to 5 or 10,000 other neurons. There are a lot of electrical changes occurring every second, especially in the areas that are being used. What I mean is if I show you a brightly colored shape, then the part of your brain that processes visual information will activate. If I put a delicious donut in front of you, but you know you aren't supposed to eat it, then the part of your brain that deals with inhibition will activate. How do we know this? We have developed specialized technology for reading the electrical activity in your brain.

The electroencephalography machine, or EEG, is a recording device of brainwave activity. It works by being extremely sensitive to electrical changes and allows us to get an immediate understanding of the general area of activity. The functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or fMRI, is an imaging device that measures the flow of blood through the brain. The idea behind this imaging device is that there will be higher blood flow to the parts of the brain that are more active. The good thing about this type of imaging is that it is extremely accurate; the problem falls in the time it takes to render an image. The MRI uses sensitive techniques that require translation, meaning that the image you see was a few seconds ago. Seconds, in brain terms, is a long time.

Lateral Activation

Now that you have a good idea of how we know what is going on in your brain, you should know that there have been a few findings that were surprising. When presented with a new and novel situation, like solving a complex mathematical problem or completing a complex maze, it was found that younger people have only half of their brain highly engaged, while the other half shows lower-level activity. This was labeled unilateral activation, which means one (uni) side (lateral) is more engaged.

When older people were observed doing the same task, both sides of their brain activated. This was labeled bilateral activation, which means two (bi) sides (lateral) are engaged.

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