Cranial Nerves of the Face and Mouth: Motion and Sensation Functionality

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  • 0:31 Facial Nerve or…
  • 2:11 Trigeminal Nerve or…
  • 3:13 Hypoglossal Nerve or…
  • 4:14 Glossopharyngeal Nerve…
  • 5:15 How to Recall the…
  • 8:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Expert Contributor
Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

We wouldn't be able to talk, taste, chew, or swallow without the cranial nerves of our face and mouth. Find out how these nerves help us move our tongue and enjoy everything from kissing to food to conversation.

The Sensation and Movement of the Face

When chewing on a juicy steak, there's a lot more to what goes on than meets the eye. Besides the obvious preparation of the food, there are four major nerves involved in helping you taste, chew, and swallow the delicious meat. In addition, the way you relay your satisfaction with the food to others through facial expressions and words has to do with these four nerves as well.

Facial Nerve or Cranial Nerve VII

Location of the facial nerve
Facial Nerve Diagram

Assuming you're not a vegetarian, the smell of a nice steak is going to bring a smile to your face. You use your smile to nonverbally communicate your pleasure. The most important nerve controlling muscles of facial expression, including those involved in a smile, is unsurprisingly called the facial nerve, also known as cranial nerve VII.

In addition to helping you show your satisfaction at the thought of eating a nicely cooked dinner, the facial nerve has other critical functions involved in eating that delicious meal. As you put a piece of the steak into your mouth, you're going to experience a pleasant taste. This is mainly thanks in part to the fact that the facial nerve also conveys the sensation of taste from the anterior two-thirds of your tongue.

And, even before you put the steak in your mouth, there is saliva inside of your mouth that will help in the process of digestion. Two out of the three of the most important salivary glands are innervated by the facial nerve. These glands are known as the submandibular and sublingual salivary glands. Combined, these two glands produce the vast majority of the saliva in your mouth.

Finally, you may enjoy and love your meal so much that you'll begin to cry tears of joy. This is thanks to the fact that the facial nerve also innervates the lacrimal gland, the gland that produces tears.

Trigeminal Nerve or Cranial Nerve V

The trigeminal nerve is vital for facial sensation.
Trigeminal Nerve Diagram

As you cry tears of joy at the awesome taste in your mouth, all thanks to the facial nerve, you'll want to wipe those tears away from your eyes and cheek. As you wipe away the tears, you can sense the cloth against your skin. This is all thanks to the fact that the most important nerve involved in facial sensation is called the trigeminal nerve, also known as cranial nerve V.

Hence, while CN VII provides motor movement for the muscles of facial expression, CN V is the most important nerve in facial sensation. In addition, CN V is the nerve that innervates the muscles that help move your jaw up and down in order to chew that savory steak. Hence, CN V innervates the muscles of mastication.

Hypoglossal Nerve or Cranial Nerve XII

In between chewing your food and enjoying its sensation, you'll probably want to express to whomever cooked the meal how much you enjoyed it. It did make you cry, after all; that's how good it was. One of the most important structures involved in speech is your tongue. Try holding your tongue with your clean fingers and tell me how well you can speak out loud. You're not going to do too well.

In order to get the muscles of your tongue to move about and help you express your sincere appreciation of the food, you're going to have to have a nerve responsible for the innervation of those muscles. Hence, the nerve that innervates the muscles of the tongue is called the hypoglossal nerve or cranial nerve XII.

The hypoglossal nerve is necessary for speech.
Hypoglossal Nerve Diagram

The tongue isn't just for speech. It helps you chew your food and helps to move food toward the back of the tongue and mouth so it can be swallowed.

Glossopharyngeal Nerve or Cranial Nerve IX

As the tongue helps to move the food you've chewed to the back of the tongue, the molecules of food that give rise to taste will activate taste sensors located in the back one-third of your tongue. If you recall, CN VII is responsible for taste sensation in the anterior two-thirds of the tongue. Well, it's the glossopharyngeal nerve, also known as cranial nerve IX, that is the nerve responsible for the sensation of taste in the posterior one-third of the tongue.

Cranial nerve IX is important for swallowing.
Glossopharyngeal Nerve Diagram

In addition, cranial nerve IX is a nerve that innervates one of the three major salivary glands, called the parotid gland. The other two salivary glands, if you remember, were innervated by the facial nerve. Finally, CN IX is like CN XII, as it also innervates the muscles involved in swallowing your food.

How to Recall the Function and Name of Each Nerve

To help you remember what each of these nerves is responsible for, here is a little story.

The facial nerve is also known as cranial nerve number VII. Think of rolling a lucky 7 on a die at a casino! What would happen if you rolled a lucky 7? You would smile, cry tears of joy, salivate at the thought of all of that money, and taste the sweet victory on the tip of your tongue. Therefore, cranial nerve VII is responsible for facial expressions such as smiling, hence the reason why it's called the facial nerve! It also innervates the lacrimal glands for crying, the salivary glands for salivation, and the taste buds at the front of your tongue for tasting that sweet victory!

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Additional Activities

Everyday Activities with Cranial Nerves

In this extension, students will be looking at different activities that they do everyday and how it uses the cranial nerves. Like the lesson explains, students might choose an activity like speaking to a friend, sucking on a candy cane and tasting the candy, or kissing a loved one. Each one of these activities involves several cranial nerves. For example, if a student chose to explain how speaking to a friend uses cranial nerves, they might start by explaining how cranial nerve VII allows for them to smile and express their emotions during the story. Students would continue this pattern and explain how each cranial nerve is involved.

Student Instructions

It can be hard to remember all the cranial nerves and what they do. They best way is to practice applying your knowledge to something you already know about. In this activity, you'll be choosing one daily activity and explaining how it uses each of the cranial nerves. For example, you might choose to explain telling a funny story to a friend, biting into your favorite meal, or kissing a romantic partner. For each nerve, explain how the activity would use it and draw a small picture of what is happening. You can use the table below as a guide to organize your thoughts.

Describe your activity in at least three sentences, then fill in the table below.

Cranial NerveAction in the activityPicture

Criteria For Success

  • An activity that uses the cranial nerves is clearly described
  • The function of each cranial nerve in the chosen activity is clearly described
  • A picture illustrates what is going on during the activity

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