One other item to note: when faced with a novel situation (rather than something routine, or instinctual), it is the frontal lobe that will activate, using the functions listed above to consider the issue. For example, when asked to solve “2+2=?”, one’s frontal lobe is not activated; this is a problem so simple, and solved so frequently, that it is a reflexive response - no planning is involved. If, on the other hand, one is asked, “Which is larger: 3a + 4b x 4c or 5a x 6b - 8c where a is equal to half the product of b x c?” then the puzzle might require a bit more frontal lobe activity, including to determine whether the problem even makes sense (since I just made that up out of thin air). Assuming it is legitimate, one might consider a number of strategies designed to determine the answer; it is the planning and organization associated with truly solving a puzzle that the frontal lobe provides. The frontal lobe would help decide whether to solve the problem as well, or whether to say "Forget this!" and go watch TV. In a different context, figuring out when the “time is right” to broach a subject in a social setting, such as asking for a raise, or a date, or whether a joke is appropriate to tell in a particular setting, is also the domain of the frontal lobe.
I completed an evaluation not too long ago where my primary concern about the individual’s overall functioning at the present time was his possible frontal lobe dysfunction. Specifically, he appeared to grasp all of the concepts relevant to competency to stand trial, and when asked directly for an answer to a question, or prompted to respond, he would. But there appeared to be little in the way of motivation; that is, he would respond when asked, but he did not necessarily appear to initiate any effort into demonstrating his competency. Tests measuring his degree of effort matched this theory as well; he did not make anything up, or intentionally provide wrong answers (that would require a plan, and implementation of it!), but rather he would provide answers with the first thing that popped into his head. There would be no consideration of the problem; no recognition (or an inability to act on any recognition) that as the problems and issues became more difficult, sustained focus for a lengthier period of time might be required to answer the question (for example, in multi-step questions, similar to “Say a train leaves New York at 7 am at 65 miles per hour, and...”); and no consideration of the larger context in which the evaluation was taking place. Simply put, he was basically a reactive, amotivated individual (thanks in large part to tons of drug use, including inhalant abuse) who required prompting to initiate most behaviors. When asked about his behavior on the unit, staff would state, “Most of the time, he just sits there.” An interesting case, to say the least, and one that prompted me to learn more about the functioning of the frontal lobes (thus demonstrating that mine is still working at least to some degree).
In the spirit of this effort at self-education, I purchased The Human Frontal Lobes, by Bruce Miller and Jeffrey Cummings. I have just started to look through it a bit, but it looks to contain just about anything anyone could ever want to know about the front part of the brain. Here is a snippet from the introduction:
“The frontal lobes are no longer considered a single functional entity. Rather, there are a variety of ways to anatomically subdivide this brain region, all based upon distinctive constructs. Most researchers accept that the frontal lobes have three major divisions: motor, premotor, and prefrontal regions. Motor and premotor areas are considered distinctive functional units, whereas prefrontal cortex is more complex, requiring further subdivision. One system to subdivide the frontal cortex relies on the distinctive functions of different prefrontal regions. Another approach considers regional connections to and from specific subcortical regions. (Pg. 7)”
That’s page seven, from the introduction. Man, do I have my work cut out for me; that passage alone gave my frontal lobe a headache. Obviously, this is a tome that would be best tackled in small doses over time, rather than late night reading where I hope the ending surprises me. In any event, as I go through the book, even on an as-needed basis, I’ll keep an eye out for little bits here and there that might be of interest, and pass it along. If you’re “in the biz,” and need a thorough book on this area of neurological and neuropsychological functioning, consider this one.