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What Is the Occipital Lobe and Why Is It Important to Us?

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What Is the Occipital Lobe and Why Is It Important to Us?

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Summary: The occipital lobe is the smallest of the four lobes of the brain. Its primary function is processing visual stimuli, but there is a lot more to learn about this small, yet crucial part of our brain.

Located just under the parietal lobe and above the temporal lobe, the occipital lobe is the smallest of the four lobes of the brain.

Its primary function is processing visual stimuli, such as visual processing, discerning colors, and calculating distance and dimensions.

This small yet crucial part of our brain is what allows us to process and understand what our eyes are looking at.

The information is processed at such a rapid speed giving us the ability to move around from second to second without the need to pause.

Where Is the Occipital Lobe Located and What Does It Do?

Of the four major lobes of the brain, the occipital lobe is the smallest — but in our daily lives, we perhaps rely on it the most.

Where is it located?

The occipital lobe was so named for its position at (you guessed it!) the back of the head. That is probably where the phrase “I have eyes at the back of my head” comes from.

It’s located right at the base of our neck, in the bottom portion of the skull under the parietal lobe. It sits over the cerebellum separated by a thick membrane made of dense connective tissue called dura mater.

What does it do?

The occipital lobe has several components.  Each is responsible for a different aspect of visual processing.

Some functions include:

  • Reading comprehension
  • Identifying colors, shapes, sizes
  • Assessing distance, size, location, and depth

Together with the other parts of the brain, the occipital lobe helps you to perceive the world around you. All of this would be impossible without the healthy function of the occipital lobe.

occipital lobe

What Is the Responsibility of the Occipital Lobe?

When you look at a plant and are able to recognize its green color, you are using the occipital lobe. Sight begins in your eyes. The information then travels to the primary visual cortex through neural pathways. This is where the perception starts with recognizing colors and location.

Perceptual Information is then sent to a pathway (ventral stream) that carries the information from the primary visual cortex to the temporal lobe. It’s responsible for understanding ‘what’ we are seeing. Without it, we would see, but wouldn’t be able to understand or define what it is we are looking at.

After perceiving the visual stimuli, the occipital lobe relays the information to the frontal lobe and parietal lobe.

The frontal lobe is in charge of translating the information it receives, while the parietal lobe helps us react to what we are seeing.

Occipital Lobe

What Would Happen if the Occipital Lobe Was Damaged?

The most obvious problem that could occur as a result of occipital lobe damage is blindness.

This type of blindness can occur even if the eyes are healthy. Because the information that comes from the retina (the back wall of the eye) can’t be processed or understood.

In less drastic cases, vision loss is partial — like having holes in your vision.

Other damages

  • Epileptic seizures: These seizures can result in visual hallucinations.
  • Color Agnosia: Inability to differentiate colors
  • Agraphia: recognize shapes, faces, and objects, read written words
  • Cerebral Akinetopsia (or motion blindness): Inability to perceive moving objects.

Can the Occipital Lobe Repair Itself?

The short answer is that it’s possible but not yet definitive. But this doesn’t mean it’s able to completely heal back 100% of the damage.

The better question to ask here is, can the brain heal or repair itself from injury or damage?

To explain this, we’ll need to take a small interesting dive into two important activities in the brain that take place, neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.

Neurogenesis of the brain

As your body moves, your brain grooves

Until recently, scientists thought that new cell production came to an abrupt halt in adulthood. But recent discoveries have revealed that adult brains actually do continue to produce new cells in specialized locations.

A process in the brain known as neurogenesis is involved in manufacturing new neurons or replacing old ones. However, the focus of this process mostly takes place in an area of the brain called the hippocampus (Known for its role in learning and memory).

In young developing brains, those newly generated neurons migrate to various parts and allow it to self-organize into different structures. Neurogenesis can also occur as a response to injury, such as stroke.

Another thing to note is neuroplasticity (aka brain plasticity) at work. What we know about the brain is its amazing ability to build new neural pathways every day. Every time you learn something new or expose yourself to new environments and stimuli, your brain is morphing and adapting.

In some cases of brain injury, neuroplasticity mechanisms can take place and migrate a particular activity from the damaged area of the brain to another healthier part. Thus, the person that lost certain abilities due to a brain injury, can regain some (or all) abilities back that were affected by that injury.

As your body moves, your brain grooves.

— Jim Kwik, trainer of Mindvalley’s Superbrain Quest

What Jim Kwik means by “your brain grooves”, are the folds and grooves in the brain called Gyri and sulci. They are what gives the brain its characteristic wrinkled appearance.

The main function of these ridges and grooves is to increase the surface area of the cerebrum to accommodate more neurons as you expose yourself to new learning experiences and stimuli.

Basically, your brain is not static and is growing, and ever-changing if you put it in the conditions to do so.

Many scientists that study adult neurogenesis are trying to understand further how these newborn cells respond to damaged areas in the brain, as well as their function in terms of information processing.

The discovery of neurogenesis (growth of new neurons), along with neuroplasticity (rewiring of existing neurons) constantly taking place throughout our lives, is opening up amazing possibilities of learning how to harness these mechanisms to get the brain to heal from a major injury.

Think of it like how your own skin grows around a wounded area to heal itself.

We’re getting closer to manipulating and controlling these mechanisms, but we are not quite there yet.

Exercising Your Occipital Lobe

Exercising Your Occipital Lobe

The brain is truly a wondrous creation. All four lobes of the brain work together to help us to function perfectly. The most incredible part is that all of this happens within milliseconds!

But the brain isn’t just a powerful tool. It’s also a muscle. And you can improve the power of your brain by exercising it.

To strengthen your occipital lobe and use it to its full potential, try exercising it by exposing yourself to various visual stimuli. Why not watch a 3D movie or play a VR game to challenge your visual processing? You’ll be having fun and powering up your brain all at the same time!

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