In The Athlete's Way, I present a revolutionary split-brain model that I coined "Up Brain/Down Brain." I am not a neuroscientist, but through lengthy conversations with my father (who was a world-renowned neurosurgeon and neuroscientist) we developed a revolutionary concept that would complement the outdated and controversial concept of "Left Brain/Right Brain."
My father was a visionary and renegade. His ideas about the mind and brain caused him to be labeled a heretic by many people in the medical establishment, but he was also a mainstream author and wrote the The Fabric of Mind (Viking). My dad was always fascinated by the mystery and beauty of the cerebellum, which is why I focused on all of these in The Athlete’s Way.
In 2007, I published this revolutionary split-brain model in which I designated the cerebellum as our “Down Brain” and the cerebrum as our “Up Brain." These brain "tags" were a direct, simple, and cogent response to the concept of Left Brain/Right Brain. As an athlete, coach and writer I am eager to put the cerebellum in the spotlight and explore how it interacts with the cerebrum.
Leonardo Da Vinci made wax castings of the brain in 1504 and coined the term cerebellum (Latin: little brain). The mysterious and powerful cerebellum is only 10 percent of brain volume but holds more than 50 percent of your brain’s total neurons. This is a perplexing ratio to neuroscientists.
What exactly is the cerebellum doing that requires so many neurons? Nobody knows for sure. My dad always said, “We won’t know in our lifetime exactly what the cerebellum is doing, but based on the disproportionate number of neurons it holds we can be assured that whatever it’s doing, it’s doing a lot of it!”
Have you ever heard the word cerebellar before? If you had to pinpoint where the cerebellum is in your skull, would you know where to point? My spell check always tries to correct the word, which is a constant reminder of why I am on this crusade to get the word cerebellar into circulation. Before reading any further, please take the time to watch this quick two-minute animated video here.
Muscle memory has long been known to be held in the cerebellum. Anything that you learn through practice and do without thinking, like riding a bicycle, hitting a tennis ball or driving a car is cerebellar. As a kid practicing tennis religiously, my father would coach me by saying things like: “Think about hammering and forging the Purkinje cells of your cerebellum into muscle memory with every stroke, Chris.” For more on this check out: No.1 Reason Practice Makes Perfect.
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
In the 1970s my father was one of many neuroscientists intrigued by the concept that the left brain may be our 'reasoning' brain and the right brain our 'creative' brain. He was one of the experts referenced in the bestselling book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which was one of the first books to create a prescriptive based in neuroscience directed at teaching readers how-to master a skill.
The empirical proof from my life experience combined with observing and coaching others suggests that the cerebellum holds so much untapped power. I know from first-hand experience and researching the daily routines of creative greats, thought leaders and high achievers that most of them are tapping into the power of their cerebellum by choices they make everyday—and you can too.
Being sedentary, isolated from face-to-face contact, plugged into a two-dimensional digital device, and disconnected from nature shrinks your cerebellum and restricts your ability to maximize your intuitive and intellectual capabilities, be more creative and ultimately feel fully alive.
Cerebellar “Implicit Memory” Vs. Cerebral “Declarative Memory”
The cerebrum is responsible for "cerebral" things that you do consciously ("know-you-know") or do with volition; "cerebellar" things are things you do automatically and learn through practice. When you are chopping vegetables and you drop the knife and in a millisecond move your foot to avoid the falling knife, that is cerebellar "thinking." This is the difference between declarative memory and implicit memory.
The cerebellum learns through trial and error, and once the Purkinje cells have encoded the "long-term depression" necessary to fine-tune motor skills like riding a bike, flipping an egg in a skillet, or serving a tennis ball, you will be able to do that skill automatically for the rest of your life with a little warm-up.
Can you think of a time recently when a cerebellar skill or memory resurfaced after years or decades of hibernation? I had an experience playing tennis this summer as the recreational director of Camp Lightbulb. When we arrived early at the tennis courts the instructor wasn't there and I realized that I would have to be a tennis instructor for campers. I hadn’t held a tennis racquet for over a decade, but the second I had the racquet in my hand, all of my 'cerebellar' muscle memory came rushing back like I had been on the court yesterday.
I was excited to read professor Rob Mancuso’s latest blog called Think Less, Feel More about “mastering the art of intuitive intelligence.” Although the blog is written from a business perspective, there are a lot of parallels to the message of The Athlete’s Way. The blog points out that cognitive “book smarts” and intuitive “street smarts” are equally important.
Mancuso talks about the key to intuitive intelligence as being able to "allow subconscious thoughts to percolate into your conscious mind where they can be processed cognitively." He states that "if you spend too much time watching TV, on your computer or smartphone where information and entertainment is spoon fed to you that your intuitive intelligence will shrivel and you’ll end up sabotaging your chances for success. On the flip side, the time you spend unplugged from digital devices, meeting new people, traveling, exploring nature, moving your body, bonding intimately with family and friends will fortify your intuitive intelligence and make you more likely to create your own luck and truly succeed.” I couldn’t agree with this sentiment more.
Conclusion: Screen Time Shrinks Your Cerebellum
The importance of being more physically active is not just about body-mass index and the health costs associated with the “obesity epidemic.” It is much more complex. Another unspoken toll of inactivity is that it causes your down brain to shrink, and without your cerebellum working in unison with your cerebrum, we as individuals and a nation are stunting our ability to create and innovate. Cerebellar thinking is the mysterious engine that drives many aspects of cognition, including creativity.
As a parent, I want my daughter to lock in as much muscle memory as she can at a young age—and to be exposed to as many enriched environments, cultures, and languages as possible. Yes, she can learn things in school and by interfacing with an iPad, but this doesn't really flex her cerebellum to the degree exploring and living in the three-dimensional world does.
What will the long-term impact be on our youth if they grow up in a two-dimensional virtual reality and have shriveled cerebellums with no muscle memory to go back to when they're adults?
I believe it will result in a weaker brain pool, less creativity, and innovation, which is one reason that it is so important that we make sure that young Americans stay physically active, spend time outdoors exploring nature, and are encouraged to be adventurous and engage all of their senses everyday. This bulks up both the white and gray matter of all hemispheres of the up brain and down brain.
The same is true for senior citizens. If you don’t use the cerebellum regularly, it shrinks and you lose its most basic function which is proprioception and balance. People who sit all day or are on bed rest can lose up to 25 percent of cerebellar brain mass. Senior citizens who don’t get up and move around regularly are more likely to have falls and break a bone, which is often the beginning of a downward spiral. The same is true for flexing both hemispheres of the 'up brain' by attaining new knowledge and connecting ideas in new and useful ways whether it be through crossword puzzles or brain teasers.
People of all generations need to understand the importance of doing things every day to keep every hemisphere of the brain healthy and strong. Below is a quick "map" I drew illustrating THE SUPER 8 LOOP which connects all hemispheres of Up Brain/Down Brain & Left Brain/Right Brain. This happens automatically when we do rhythmic, aerobic cardiovascular exercise like: running, biking, swimming, dancing, riding the elliptical etc.
© Christopher Bergland 2012. All rights reserved.
The Athlete’s Way ® is a registered trademark of Christopher Bergland.