Occipital Lobe: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on September 01, 2022
4 min read

The cerebral cortex of your brain is the outermost layer. It's the part of the brain that appears wrinkled because it has a lot of folds. Your cerebral cortex is divided into two hemispheres. Each hemisphere is divided into four lobes. The occipital lobe is the smallest lobe of your brain. It makes up around 12% of the surface area of the cerebral cortex.

The occipital lobe contains the primary visual processing center of the brain, including the visual cortexes. 

When presented with an object, your eyes send visual information to your primary visual cortex, which is also known as V1. Your visual cortex relays that information to secondary visual processing areas. These secondary areas interpret depth, distance, location, and the identity of the objects you see.

The brain is complicated, and researchers are still studying learning more about occipital lobe function. Researchers used to think the occipital lobe only controlled visual functions, but it also receives input from other brain regions, so the occipital lobe may perform additional functions. However, more research is needed. 

The occipital lobe is responsible for highly complex visual functions, including: 

  • Receiving visual information from the sensors in your retina
  • Mapping visual input, which helps with your spatial reasoning and visual memory
  • Determining the color of the items you see
  • Assessing distance, size, and depth
  • Identifying familiar faces and objects
  • Relaying visual information to other brain regions to help respond to visual stimuli

Your brain contains the following occipital lobe structures that work together to enable complex visual processing: 

Primary visual cortex. This area, also known as Broadman area 17 or V1, is the occipital lobe's primary visual cortex. 

Secondary visual cortex. The secondary visual cortex is also designated V2, V3, V4, V5, or Brodmann areas 18 and 19. It surrounds the primary visual cortex and receives information from it.

Ventral stream. The ventral stream transmits visual information to the temporal lobe and helps with object recognition.

Dorsal stream. The dorsal stream connects the V1 and V2 regions. Through it, information flows from the occipital lobes to the parietal lobes. 

Lateral geniculate body. The lateral geniculate body is part of the thalamus. It acts as a sensory relay system by transmitting information from the retinas to the primary visual cortex. 

Lingula. The lingula works with the lateral geniculate body to create spatial awareness and depth perception. It processes information about what's in the visual field from the side half of the retina. 

Your occipital lobes are located underneath the occipital bone at the back of your head. You have two occipital lobes, one in each hemisphere of your brain.  

Damage to your occipital lobe can cause the following symptoms: 

  • Blindness
  • Color blindness
  • Visual hallucinations
  • Blurred vision
  • Problems locating objects in the environment
  • Problems identifying colors
  • Problems recognizing movement
  • Inability to recognize words 
  • Difficulty reading and writing

Because of its location at the back of the head, the occipital lobe is less susceptible to injury than some other parts of the brain. Even if the occipital lobe is damaged, other regions of the brain may be able to compensate and take over some of its functions. Complete damage to the primary visual cortex can cause cortical blindness, though. 

Riddoch Syndrome is a rare condition that can also be caused by damage to the occipital lobe. Those affected can only see an object if it's moving in their visual field. 

The best way to protect your occipital lobe is by preventing a traumatic brain injury, and there are steps you can take to reduce your chances of sustaining such an injury. You should: 

Wear a seatbelt. Every time you ride or drive in a motor vehicle, buckle up. 

Avoid driving under the influence. Never drive while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 

Wear protective headgear. Wear a helmet when you: 

  • Ride a bike, motorcycle, scooter, all-terrain vehicle, or snowmobile
  • Ride a skateboard, roller skates, or inline skates
  • Play sports such as football, hockey, or boxing
  • Bat during baseball or softball
  • Ski or snowboard
  • Ride a horse

Prevent falls in older adults. Take the following steps to reduce your risk of falling: 

  • Talk to your doctor about how you can reduce your chances of falling.
  • Ask your doctor about any medicines you take that may cause dizziness.
  • Have your vision checked yearly and update your glasses as needed. 
  • Exercise to increase your strength and balance.
  • Make your home safer by removing hazards. 

Protect children from injuries. Make your home safer for young children by doing the following: 

  • Use safety gates at the top and bottom of the stairs.
  • Install window guards to prevent falls from open windows.
  • Only allow your children to play on playgrounds with soft material on the ground, such as mulch or sand.