The Prefrontal Cortex and Anticipation

Do you remember my last blog in which I wrote about anticipation? This blog is a continuation of that blog, and will discuss how the prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead) plays a part in anticipation.

First of all . . . how was your Thanksgiving holiday? Did you spend it around a table with precious family and friends, or were you one of the unfortunate ones who celebrated alone? Was it everything you anticipated, or was it disappointing? Whenever our friends and family come, we are just thrilled to be together, but I’ll admit: there are some great cooks around our celebratory table!

You will remember that the limbic system of the brain is a major player in anticipation, but so is the prefrontal cortex. But what is the prefrontal cortex anyway?

J. M. Fuster (2009) writes in the Encyclopedia of Neuroscience,

The prefrontal cortex is one of the last cortical regions to undergo full phylogenetic and ontogenetic development. It is profusely and reciprocally connected with subcortical and other cortical structures, notably the thalamus, the basal ganglia, the hypothalamus, the amygdala, the hippocampus, and cortices of association of the temporal and parietal lobes. Several neurotransmitter systems are represented in the prefrontal cortex, notably dopamine and cholinergic systems. Based on neuropsychological, neurophysiological, and neuroimaging studies, it can be concluded that general function of the prefrontal cortex is the temporal organization of behavior, speech, and reasoning. That general function is supported by at least three cognitive functions in which the prefrontal cortex critically participates: active short-term memory (working memory), preparatory action set, and control of interference.

Simply stated, the prefrontal cortex is one of the last brain components to fully develop. It is in a reciprocal relationship with the components of the limbic system, meaning that they give and take, working together. The prefrontal cortex’s main functions are to organize speech, behavior, and reasoning, as well as participate in working memory, preparatory work, and control of inference or deductive reasoning.

Have you ever heard the expression, “You cannot reason with unreasonableness?” One of the reasons for this is that, especially for a child, is that their prefrontal cortex (where reasoning ability is located) is not fully developed. For others, it may be that that there has been damage to their prefrontal cortex, such as an accident or deliberate blow to the forehead.

What part does the prefrontal cortex play in anticipation?

Tancredi describes the prefrontal cortex as a “command and control center.” Virtually every operating system of the brain has direct communication with the prefrontal cortex,” including limbic structures: the amygdala, the hippocampus, the hypothalamus, and the thalamus. The cortex “organizes purposeful control and concentration of thinking to achieve well-defined objectives.” It holds information relevant to the task at hand in working memory, and excludes what is irrelevant.

The prefrontal cortex also modulates an organism’s emotional response to events. “When the limbic structures overreact to fear, the prefrontal cortex is often able to intervene and put reactions into perspective through careful evaluation of the data at hand.” (Cornwall, 2010)

In an excellent movie (based on a true-life experience), a newly married couple were involved in a life changing automobile accident. The wife sustained the greatest physical damage, as her head smashed through the windshield and she was found lying nearly lifeless on the hood of the car. As a result, she experienced severe brain damage, as you can imagine, and she lost all her memory of her life away from her parents, married to the man of her dreams. Try as they might to jog her memories, they would not return. However, her childhood memories were vivid, and her anticipation of safety caused her to return home to her parent. Her fear of the unknown caused her to leave her husband behind. The only hope for her marriage was to date again her husband and “fall in love” with him a second time. Amazingly, this was accomplished over a period of time. They remarried and today live together with their two children.

In a 1995 paper, “Affective Computing,” R. W. Picard summarizes some of the central findings in A. R. Damasio’s landmark book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain.

Damasio’s patients have frontal-lobe disorders, affecting a part of the cortex that communicates with the limbic system. Otherwise, the patients appear to be intelligent, and unusually rational. However, these same patients suffer from an impaired ability to make decisions. Years of studies with frontal-lobe patients indicate that they spend inordinate amounts of time trying to make decisions that those without frontal-lobe damage can make quite easily. For example, the mere task of choosing a date to schedule an appointment can lead these patients through abnormally long chains of decisions, perhaps without ever reaching a decision, until a date is imposed upon them by someone who is tired of waiting for their response.

Emotion does not merely play a tie-breaking role in making certain decisions. Rather, it appears to be essential in learning the biases required to construct rational responses. Damasio’s findings provide neurological support that there is no “pure reason” in the healthy human brain–emotions are vital for healthy rational human thinking and behavior.

Talk about teamwork! We are, in fact, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as we are reminded in Scripture. Just the intricate knowledge of how anticipation works, positive or negative, ought to make us declare, “Wonderful are your works, O Lord; I know that full well.” (Psalm 139:14 NIV)

In the next “Rockey Blog,” we will talk a bit about the part that emotions play in daily life and decision-making. See you in January 2020!


Cornwall, G. (2010.) The phantom self: The neurology of anticipation. Retrieved from

Fuster, J. M. (2009). Prefrontal Cortex. Encyclopedia of Neuroscience.

Picard, R. W. (1995). Affective Computing. MIT Media Lab oratory Perceptual Computing Section Technical Report, 321. Retrieved from

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