Neuroanatomical terms for directions and Brain Geography

This post contains four topics: 

Galen, the first man to understand brain is for thinking, Brain navigationBrain planes and Navigation terms.


In front of me lies a digital copy of a Cognitive Neuroscience book written by Marie Banich and Rebecca Compton, 2018, published by Cambridge University press. While reading this book I have found myself extensively interested in it. Did you know that the first known man to understand that brains are linked to man’s ability to think was Galen? He lived more than two thousand years ago, at the time of the Romans. Galen was a physician who ministered to the wounds of the gladiators. While doing this he did notice that those fighters who had injuries in limbs or torso could continue to think and communicate but those whose head was smashed and had brain injuries could not. From these observations, he inferred that the brain was linked to thinking. This was interesting to me to understand that there used to be a time when we did not know why human have brains. Like now, naturally all commonly intellect people can say that brains are important for thinking, memory, motoric functions and so on.

But, to not get too sidetracked let’s start with the topics of navigation and terms. The first chapter in Banich’s and Compton’s book is to explain the basics of brain functions. Brain is a sphere, roughly speaking, which has multiple different areas. They are located all over the brain: north, south, centre, left, inner, outer… To understand where they are we need an agreed language and terms of how to navigate. Think of this as a map which identifies all major neural regions and introduces terms that help us orient in our journey into the depths of the brain. But unlike a paper map that can be navigated in two dimensions using compass points, the brain requires three-dimensional navigation.

Brain navigation

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The front of the brain, our forehead is referred to as anterior. It also means in front of. And the back is posterior. If we talk about animals, which have brains in the beginning of their tail, regions toward the front can be referred to as rostral, toward the head, whereas regions toward the rear are referred to as caudal, toward the rear.

Top / Bottom

The top of the human brain is superior (can also be called dorsal), and the bottom is inferior (can also be called ventral). If we talk about four legged animals, the dorsal is toward the back and the ventral toward the stomach. Mnemonic for this, like it is said in the Cognitive Neuroscience book, is that the dorsal fin of a shark sticks out of the water, so the dorsal is toward the back. Anatomical Directions and Axes

Mid / outer

Areas in the middle of the brain are medial and lateral is what is toward the outside of the brain.

Wikipedia had a nice image of tasty fish which visually explains the anatomical axes quite well. 

Brain planes

Brains are usually portrayed in three planes. They are called coronal, horizontal and sagittal. The coronal is an upright plane which has sliced the brain from ear-to-ear. To separate the top of the brain from the bottom we use the horizontal plane. And, if the brain needs to be cut in the middle so that we have left or right part of it we talk about the sagittal plane. The book has an excellent figure 1.4 explaining these planes for us. I am not sure if I can post it here, but if there are concerns about copyright infringement, I will remove it. Meanwhile please help yourself to understand the planes with this good figure.

Cognitive Neuroscience, Banich 2018, Figure 1.4

Some other terms that we need while “brain navigating” are contralateral, meaning on the opposite side, and ipsilateral, meaning on the same side. Our body motoric movement is contralaterally controlled. The left hand is controlled by the right side of the brain, and vice versa. 

If something applies to only one side of the brain it is called unilateral. That is easy to remember as Uni -definition is single, one (remember: unicellular, unisex). And, both sides of the brain are bilateral… bisex… easy. Other terms to describe brain areas and body parts are proximal, which means near, and distal, far.

There you go! I did write this neuroanatomical navigation guide mainly for myself so I could remember it better, and if it was any help for you, then, I think we just had a win-win situation!


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