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Temporal Lobe: Definition, Functions, and Location

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published April 13, 2021

temporal lobe location

What is it?

The temporal lobes are the second largest lobe of the human cerebrum, accounting for 22% of the overall brain’s volume, and are associated with hearing, memory, emotion, and some aspects of language.

The word temporal refers to the temples of the head, which relates to their positioning in the cerebrum. The outer surface of the temporal lobes is called the neocortex.

There are many substructures within the temporal lobes which have specific functions. The most inner part of the temporal lobes, is the older part of the cortex, also known as the limbic system, which includes the hippocampus and the amygdala.

cerebral hemispheres: Frontal lobes, Occipital lobes, Parietal lobes, Temporal lobes

The main functions of the temporal lobes include understanding language, memory acquisition, face recognition, object recognition, perception and processing auditory information.

Alike to the other lobes of the brain, there are left and right temporal lobes, situated in both hemispheres of the cerebrum. The right and left temporal lobes differ in themselves.

The left temporal lobe, which is typically the most dominant in people, is associated with understanding language, learning, memorizing, forming speech and remembering verbal information.

The right temporal lobe, which is typically the least dominant in people, is associated with learning and memorizing non-verbal information (e.g. drawings and music), recognizing information, and determining facial expressions.

Essentially, the temporal lobes interact with, and depend upon input, which can be from other brain regions, as well as from sensory input from the environment. The temporal lobes can convert sounds into visual images in the mind. We also would not be able to understand someone talking to us without the use of our temporal lobes helping us to make sense of language.

The temporal lobes are also vital for declarative memory and long-term memory, as well as making us good at selective hearing.

Substructures of the Temporal Lobes

The temporal lobe is structurally divided into the superior, middle, inferior and medial gyri.

temporal lobe structure

Superior Temporal Gyrus

‘Superior’ in anatomical terms means ‘to the top’. A ‘gyrus’ (or plural: gyri) is a ridge on the surface of the brain. 

The superior temporal gyrus is situated at the top of the temporal lobes, located somewhat above the ears. The superior temporal gyrus is an area of the temporal lobe which contains other areas with specialized functions. 

Some areas of the superior temporal gyrus are vital in auditory processing, including the processing of language. Other areas are specialized for processing a combination of frequencies, whilst others specialize in processing changes in amplitude or frequency. 

The superior temporal gyrus has been implicated as being critical in social cognition (Jou, Minshew, Keshaven, Vitale, & Harden, 2010) as well as being involved in the perceptions of emotions from facial expressions (Radua et al., 2010).

Auditory Cortex

The auditory cortex, the main area responsible for processing auditory information, is located within the temporal lobe.

The auditory cortex is a part of the superior temporal gyrus which essentially receives input from the ears and analyses it.

Once it has done this, the cortex then filters out unnecessary information, and passes on the relevant information to be processed and understood.

The sensory information that is received gets processed into meaningful units such as speech and words. As well as being able to do this, the signals can be transmitted back to the ears and can be interconnected with other parts of the cerebral cortex.

This area of the temporal lobes is therefore responsible for processing auditory information, especially important in processing the semantics in language and vision.

The auditory cortex is also important for performing basic and higher functions in regard to hearing, as well as being essential for the ability to switch languages.

Limbic System

The temporal lobe is a significant part of the limbic system. The limbic system is a group of structures deep within the brain involved in processing and regulating emotions, memory and motivation.

One of the substructures, the hippocampus, is a seahorse shaped area, essential in the formation of new memories.

The hippocampus is important for early storage of long-term memories and is involved in the transition of long-term memory to an even more permanent memory.

Another substructure of the limbic system, the amygdala, is known as the emotional center of the brain. The amygdala is involved in processing emotions, fear and reward as well as playing a big role in the fight-or-flight response.

As the amygdala is close to the hippocampus, it is involved in the modulation of memory strengthening, especially emotional memories. In essence, the stronger the emotional arousal of a memory, the more likely it will be retained.

Wernicke’s Area

Wernicke’s area is believed to be situated in the back part of the temporal lobe, frequently found in the left hemisphere.

It takes its name from Carl Wernicke, who worked with patients who had language impairments, in order to distinguish separate regions for language comprehension and production.

Wernicke’s area is particularly important for language development as well as the comprehension of speech, giving meaning to speech and the written word.

Damage to the Temporal Lobes

Below are a list of symptoms that can be associated with damage to the temporal lobes:

  • Walking unsteadily
  • Impaired verbal and non-verbal memory.
  • Impaired speech and understanding of speech – Wernicke’s aphasia.
  • Difficulty with executive functions – e.g. planning and coordinating.
  • Impaired music skills.
  • Inability to recognize faces – prosopagnosia.
  • Poor impulse control or addiction.
  • Hallucinations – visual, auditory, and olfactory.
  • Apathy.
  • Deafness.
  • Impaired learning.
  • Differences in automatic behaviors – e.g. hunger, thirst, and sexual desire.
  • Amnesia.
  • Aggressive behaviors.
  • Difficulty with planning and direction.
  • Long and short-term memory loss.

Diagnosis

In order to diagnosis damage to the temporal lobes, a thorough history of the symptoms being experienced need to be investigated. This assessment can be accompanied by someone who knows the patient well and has witnessed the problems at hand.

A common cause of temporal lobe damage is epilepsy, so a discussion of previous seizure activity can be discussed.

A referral to a neuropsychologist may be necessary to enable an understanding of the precise nature of the problem and to help with managing the condition.

There are also some common tests which are used to test for temporal lobe function. There is the Rey-Complex Figure which is a test for visual memory. The Wechsler Memory Scale- Revised is also a common test used to assess the verbal memory of an individual.

Further tests including using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or functional MRI (fMRI) can also be used to identify underlying causes by viewing the temporal lobes themselves.

Treatment

In terms of treatment for temporal lobe damage, especially when it comes to temporal lobe seizures, medication is a good option to control seizure activity.

A doctor may prescribe one or more drugs and different dosages over a period of months to find the best approach for the patient. There is also the option of electrical brain stimulators for controlling temporal lobe seizures if medication has proved to not be effective.

A vagus nerve stimulator, is implanted under the skin of the chest and attached to the vagus nerve in the neck to deliver brief intermittent electrical bursts to the brain to reduce seizure activity.

A responsive neurostimulation device, which is another stimulator, monitors brain wave activity and delivers electricals bursts to the brain to stop or shorten a seizure. In young people, especially children, they have the ability to allow a part of the brain to function in place of a damaged part of the brain – this is called brain plasticity.

Therefore, this ability may occur if there is some temporal lobe damage. However, this ability weakens with age, meaning that younger people are more likely to recover from temporal lobe damage than those who are older.


Research Studies

  • Vander Ghinst et al., (2016) found that the superior temporal gyrus (STG) may play a functional role in the ‘cocktail party effect’- the ability to focus auditory attention on a particular stimulus, whilst filtering out other auditory stimuli.
  • The researchers conducted magnetoencephalography (MEG) scans on participants exposed to five different listening conditions to test this.
  • Jung-Beeman et al., (2004) used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), discovering that there was STG activity when experiencing insight-based problem solving (also known as the ‘Aha!’ moment).
  • Vannucci (2003) also used functional neuroimaging to confirm the role of the medial (middle) temporal lobe in functions involving lexical-semantic processing.
  • Squire, Stark, & Clark (2004) found that the medial temporal lobe’s primary function is in memory.
  • Milner (1968) studied lesions of the temporal lobes and found significant differences in damage between the left and right hemispheres.

    It was found that lesions in the left temporal lobe resulted in decreased recall of verbal and visual content, including speech perception. Whereas lesions in the right temporal lobe resulted in decreased recognition of familiar faces, tonal sequences, and some musical abilities.

  • Other studies of lesions conclude that left side lesions result in impaired memory for verbal material, and impaired recall of non-verbal material (e.g. music and drawings) in right side lesions.

    Studies have also suggested that lesions in the temporal lobes are responsible for hearing and perception disorders, dizziness and hallucinations.

  • Allone et al., (2017) found that temporal lobe epilepsy (a common type of epilepsy) has been shown to affect aspects of memory, executive functions, and language difficulties.
  • Blumer (1975) found that seizure activity in the temporal lobes can cause paranoia, aggressive behavior, and perseverative speech.
  • Blumer & Walker (1975) found that severe damage to the temporal lobes can alter the sexual behavior of individuals, usually that there will be an increase in sexual activity.
  • Milner (2003) found that the inferior (lower) temporal cortex is responsible for visual perception, therefore lesions in this area can lead to an inability to recognize faces (also known as prosopagnosia).
  • There may be a link between the temporal lobes and dyslexia. As dyslexia affects reading ability and giving meaning to language, people with dyslexia may have reduced activity in their left temporal lobes.

    Valdois et al., (2019) found that impaired attentional systems within the temporal lobes can be associated with developmental dyslexia.

  • Lowndes & Savage (2007) proposed that the earliest neuropsychological identification of Alzheimer’s disease may lie in the medial temporal lobe.
  • Due to the superior temporal sulcus’ (STS) role in interpreting social and speech input, Redcay (2008) suggested that impairments in STS function may underlie many of the social and language difficulties in those with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
  • Kasai et al., (2003) used neuroimaging techniques on patients with Schizophrenia and found structural abnormalities in their superior temporal gyrus.

    There may also be a link between auditory cortex damage/deficits and schizophrenia, as damage in this area is linked to major symptoms of schizophrenia (e.g. hearing voice and auditory hallucinations).

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

How to reference this article:

Guy-Evans, O. (2021, April 13). Temporal lobe: definition, functions, and location . Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/temporal-lobe.html

APA Style References

Allone, C., Buono, V. L., Corallo, F., Pisani, L. R., Pollicino, P., Bramanti, P., & Marino, S. (2017). Neuroimaging and cognitive functions in temporal lobe epilepsy: a review of the literature. Journal of the neurological sciences, 381, 7-15.

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Blumer, D., & Walker, A. E. (1975). The neural basis of sexual behavior. Psychiatric aspects of neurological disease. New York: Grune & Stratton, 199-217. 

Jou, R. J., Minshew, N. J., Keshavan, M. S., Vitale, M. P., & Hardan, A. Y. (2010). Enlarged right superior temporal gyrus in children and adolescents with autism. Brain research, 1360, 205–212. 

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