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The brains of all mammals, including people, contain four lobes in the cortex, including the occipital, parietal, temporal, and frontal lobes. Located just beneath the lateral fissure and crossing both fissures of the brain is the temporal lobe. This vital structure helps process sensory input, including pain and auditory stimuli. It also helps you understand language, retain visual memories, and both process and remember emotions.

Damage to this region of the brain can have global consequences for virtually every bodily function, since much of what we do depends on emotions and sensory input.

Where is the Temporal Lobe Located?

Doctors sometimes refer to the temporal lobe as a pair of lobes, since the region crosses both left and right brain hemispheres, including one temporal lobe on each side. Like the brain's other three lobes, the temporal lobe is located in the forebrain. Biologists believe this is the newest portion of the brain to have evolved, since it is only present in vertebrates.

The temporal lobe is so named because of its proximity to the temples. It is positioned toward the base of the center of the cortex, just behind the temples. Like all other brain regions, it is not a standalone organ. Instead, the temporal lobe interacts with and depends upon input from all other brain regions, as well as sensory input about the surrounding world. In this way, the temporal lobe—and the brain it supports—is a dynamic organ.

Rather than controlling the mind, it learns from the environment, creating a complex mind-body-environment interplay that constantly changes a person's subjective experiences. Though every temporal lobe has a similar structure, the experiences produced in each person's temporal lobe are uniquely their own.

What Does the Temporal Lobe Do?

As its position near the temples suggests, the temporal lobe plays a key role in auditory processing. This role includes perceiving sounds, assigning meaning to those sounds, and remembering sounds. Much of the auditory work of the temporal lobe is processed through the superior temporal gyrus, a temporal lobe structure that receives sound input directly from the ear. Some of its other functions include:

  • The formation of visual memories, including long-term memories. In conjunction with the amygdala and hippocampus, two structures of the limbic system, the temporal lobe is vital for the formation of conscious memories. 
  • Interpreting the meaning of visual stimuli, including recognizing objects. It's not enough to just see an object. For vision to be useful, you must also understand what it is you are seeing. The ventral part of the temporal lobe aids in the assignment of meaning to the sights you take in every day. Without the ventral lobe, you would not be able to recognize faces or read body language. 
  • Production of speech. The temporal lobe aids in the production of speech. Dysfunction in this brain area can lead to difficulties speaking, even when other structures are intact or you can consciously think about what you want to say. 
  • Recognition of language. The auditory cortex in the temporal lobe is key for hearing and understanding speech, but a range of other structures in the temporal lobe help you understand and give meaning to language. Without the temporal lobe, you could not name objects, remember verbal exchanges, or recognize language. 
  • Controlling unconscious and apparently automatic reactions, such as appetite, thirst, hunger. 
  • Helping the body maintain homeostasis. Note that this important role is shared by many regions in the brain. 

What Are Some Important Structures in the Temporal Lobe?

As one of just four lobes in the brain, the temporal lobe is less a discrete organ, and more of a home to numerous other structures. Some of the most important structures in the temporal lobe include:

  • Limbic lobe: This brain region actually intersects with several lobes, but interacts directly with the temporal lobe to influence the limbic system, including automatic emotional reactions such as the fight-or-flight response and the limbic system. The limbic lobe is home to key memory, learning, and attention processing structures such as the amygdala and hippocampus. This brain region also manages a number of automatic, unconscious bodily functions, as well as unconscious emotional states, such as sexual arousal and appetite.
  • Wernicke's area: This brain region is associated with the understanding and processing of speech.
  • Broca's area: This brain region aids in the production of speech, though some evidence suggests that, when Broca's area is damaged, nearby regions may compensate. Together with Wernicke's area, Broca's area aids communication.

How Does the Temporal Lobe Interact With Other Areas of the Body?

The temporal lobe is not a standalone organ. It directly interacts with other regions of the brain, and sends and receives signals to and from the spinal cord, allowing it to communicate with the entire body. Thus damage to the temporal lobe can affect functioning in far-flung organs, and damage to organs completely unrelated to the temporal lobe may impede its ability to receive, process, and respond to various cues.

Because the temporal lobe houses much of the limbic system, the temporal lobe is both heavily influenced by and influences a number of automatic bodily functions, including heart rate, arousal, anxiety, and similar states. Over time, disruptions in these states can affect other bodily functions. For example, early childhood trauma predisposes some people to a chronic state of anxiety that keeps them in a state of fight-or-flight. This floods the body with hormones such as cortisol, and can lead to chronic inflammation, and even health problems such as infertility.

How Does Damage to the Temporal Lobe Affect Functioning?

Because the temporal lobe is involved in so many bodily functions, damage to the temporal lobe can be catastrophic. Severe damage can cause life-threatening bleeding, blood clots, and other conditions that can lead to death if left untreated.

The prognosis associated with temporal lobe damage is heavily dependent upon the location of the damage, source of the damage, and prompt medical care. For instance, a person who seeks medical care in response to a potential brain lesion early may see less growth of that lesion, and therefore less temporal lobe damage. Quality treatment, including occupational and speech therapy, as well as overall health, diet, lifestyle, and age also affect prognosis.

Ultimately, though, there is no way to predict the prognosis of a temporal lobe injury with absolute certainty. The brain remains a mysterious organ, and much about it is poorly understood; some people, for example, are still able to speak even in spite of extensive damage to Broca's area, while others completely lose speech in response to minor damage. Likewise, some people spontaneously recover from severe temporal lobe damage, while others make little to no progress with treatment. There are exceptions to every rule, but your doctor is your best source of predictions about your injury, and a healthy lifestyle can only improve your prognosis.

The effects of temporal lobe damage are myriad, and can include:

  • Temporal lobe epilepsy: The most common form of epilepsy, and the most common cause of seizures, temporal lobe epilepsy produces uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain that can lead to seizures.
  • Various forms of aphasia, a disorder of speech and language. Damage to Broca's area tends to impede the ability to speak, while damage to Wernicke's area can impede the ability to understand speech.
  • Impaired memory skills. The nature of the impairment depends on the location of the injury, but common problems include difficulty recognizing people, faces, or objects; poor long-term memory; disturbances in autobiographical memory, and poor auditory memory.
  • Changes in personality, particularly regarding emotional regulation and interpersonal interactions.
  • Changes in self-image and self-perception: Because the temporal lobe houses many of our memories, disruptions in or loss of autobiographical memory can produce personality changes, as well as changes in a person's sense of self.
  • Changes in automatic behaviors, such as hunger, thirst, appetite, and sexual desire. Some people with frontal lobe disorders develop addictions, inappropriate sexual behavior, poor impulse control, and aggression. Changes in appetite can be especially problematic, since both overeating and under-eating can affect overall health, thereby affecting brain function and exacerbating pre-existing damage.
  • Changes in executive function. Some people with temporal lobe damage struggle to plan or coordinate their actions.
  • Changes in spatial navigation and spatial reasoning. Damage to the frontal lobe impedes memory, and spatial reasoning—including driving—is heavily dependent on memory. Thus some people with temporal lobe damage may experience challenges driving, paying attention to physical directions, or navigating their way around the world.