Performance 7 min read

What Is The Brain Stem And What Does It Do?

by Mindvalley December 19, 2018

The brain stem is the oldest, most primitive part of the human brain. This tube-shaped region is about three inches long and made up entirely out of nervous tissue. 

The brain stem forms a bridge between the brain and the spinal cord and plays the most vital role of all. Despite its small size, the brain stem is one of the most important parts of your brain and body. 

It’s responsible for many vital functions. Breathing, swallowing, and digestion – only to name a few. Your whole body and the rest of your brain all rely on a healthy brain stem function.

To get an understanding of how important its role really is, consider this analogy…

A flower and all its petals, small branches and leaves represent your brain, body and its vital organs. The main stem and roots represent your brain stem. If you cut the flower off of the main stem, it will start to shrivel away and die.

That’s how important it is!

In this article, we will take a closer look at the structure, function, and importance of the brain stem.

brain stem location and function

Where Is The Location Of The Brain Stem?

Located just above the spinal cord, the brain stem connects the spinal cord to the cerebellum part of the brain. Its connection is made up of three pairs of nerve bundles known as cerebellar peduncles.

In addition, the brain stem also serves as the connection between the cerebrum and the cerebellum, two of the four main regions of the brain.

What Are The 3 Parts Of The Brainstem And Their Functions?

If you look closely at the structure of the brain stem, you’ll notice that it looks much like an actual stem, while the cerebrum looks like a flower growing from it. Underneath them is the spinal cord, which can be observed as the root.

It consists of three major divisions: the medulla oblongata, the pons, and the midbrain.

To summarize it, you can group them into the following three roles:

The Medulla Oblongata: 

Starting at the bottom, the medulla oblongata “grows” directly from the spinal cord. It contains two types of nerve fibers – myelinated (made up of white matter) and unmyelinated (made up of gray matter).

Function: It controls a wide range of involuntary processes like breathing, cardiovascular system, and digestion. It’s also responsible for a number of reflexive actions, like vomiting, swallowing, coughing, and sneezing.

The Pons: 

Moving upwards is the pons, which serves as a bridge between the spinal cord and the cerebrum. This part of the brain stem is home to many vital nerves. These include the abducens nerve (eye movement), the facial nerve (facial expressions), and the trigeminal nerve (feeling in the face).

Function: It deals with sensations from the head and face, movement of the eyes, and mouth. It also aids us in balance when we move and plays a role in cardiovascular and respiratory regulation and saliva production

The Midbrain: 

Finally, there is the midbrain, which is located below the cerebral cortex and above the hindbrain in a central location underneath the brain. This complex part of the brain contains numerous important structures, as well as a number of cranial nerves supporting the vision, facial and eye movement, as well as movement of neck and shoulder muscles.

Function: It gathers sensory information related to eye movements and visual and auditory processing. Among other functions, the midbrain also houses parts involved in movement, motivation, and reward.

brain stem

The 3 Functions Of The Brain Stem

To summarize, you can say that all the individual roles of the brain stem can be summed up into three main functions. These include:

  1. Serving as communication between the brain and the spinal cord.
  2. Controlling the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
  3. Housing cranial nerve nuclei that are instrumental to movement and sensory functions.
important brain stem functions

Can You Recover From A Brain Stem Injury?

If you’ve read our article about the cerebellum, you’ll learn that sometimes you can survive an injury to certain parts of the brain. There are even cases where some people discovered that they’ve been living without their cerebellum their whole life!

So the question that comes to mind is…

Can You Live Without A Brain Stem?

To make a long story short: no, you cannot live without a brain stem.

While there are some brain regions that you can live without, the brain stem is not one. 


The brain stem is a vital part for your brain and body to function. It controls your body’s breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. In addition, It also controls your consciousness and autonomic functions, which are absolute requirements to sustain life.

Brain Stem Injury And Treatment

It’s not all bad news when it comes to treating brain stem injuries. As long as the injury is diagnosed early enough, it can be in many cases highly treatable.

Depending on the nature of the injury of course, and what areas of the body are affected, specific exercises and therapy can help strengthen the brain stem’s function.

We need to understand how our minds work so we can work our minds better.

—Jim Kwik, Author of Mindvalley’s Superbrain Program

Several studies have shown that physical activity, particularly leg exercises, can support the production of new neurons by stimulating the brain stem pathways. Working out regularly can boost your brain power, improve your memory, and protect your brain from age-related mental decline.

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What do you do to boost your brain function? Let us know in the comments below!

by Mindvalley
Mindvalley is creating a global school that delivers transformational education for all ages. Powered by community. Fueled by fun. We are dedicated to ensuring that humans live happier, healthier, and more fulfilled lives by plugging in the gaps that conventional education failed to teach us. We do this by organising real-world events around the world and producing world-class quality programmes in several areas of transformation, including mind, body, and performance.

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