In 1504, Leonardo da Vinci made wax castings of the human brain and coined the term cerebellum (Latin for "little brain") to describe two small brain hemispheres that are neatly tucked under the relatively colossal hemispheres of the cerebrum (Latin for "brain"). Cerebellar is the sister word to cerebral and means ‘relating to or located in the cerebellum.'
The cerebellum is only 10% of brain volume but holds almost 80% of your brain's total neurons. Conversely, the cerebrum is 90% of brain volume but only holds approximately 20% of your brain's total neurons. Whatever the cerebellum is doing, it's doing a lot of it.
Historically, neuroscientists have considered the cerebellum to be the seat of non-thinking activities such as coordinating and fine-tuning muscle movements. However, in recent years, a wide range of studies have shown (for the first time) that the cerebellum plays an important role in many of our cognitive, emotional, and creative processes.
Researchers at Stanford University are conducting groundbreaking research on the neural basis of enhancing creativity. Their findings suggest that the cerebellum may be the prime driving force of our creative processes.
In fact, the Stanford researchers found that suppressing the executive-control centers of the cerebrum—and allowing the cerebellum to be the “controller"—increases spontaneous creative capacity. This is a revolutionary concept that challenges the dubious construct of the “right brain” being our creative epicenter.
I first reported on Stanford’s research linking the cerebellum and creativity in a May 2015 Psychology Today blog post, “The Cerebellum May Be the Seat of Creativity.” After writing that post, I reached out to lead author Manish Saggar, Ph.D., of the Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research, Department of Psychiatry. We’ve stayed in touch.
Saggar's first study on creativity and the cerebellum found that “overthinking” impaired creative capacity. Saggar summed up these findings by saying, “The more you think about it, the more you mess it up.” This is exactly what tennis legend Arthur Ashe would describe as “paralysis by analysis.”
Last week, in an email correspondence, Saggar let me know that his second paper on the neuroscience of creative capacity enhancement was recently accepted by the Cerebral Cortex journal and would be published soon.... I was thrilled to wake up this morning and open an email from Saggar letting me know that his latest research was published last night.
The June 2016 study, “Changes in Brain Activation Associated with Spontaneous Improvization and Figural Creativity After Design-Thinking-Based Training: A Longitudinal fMRI Study,” appears in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
For the first time, this research shows that improvisation-based creative capacity enhancement was associated with reduced engagement of executive functioning regions of the cerebrum and increased involvement of spontaneous implicit processing of the cerebellum.
At the beginning of the latest study, participants were divided into two groups. One group participated in a five-week design-thinking-based Creative Capacity Building Program (CCBP), the other group was enrolled in a Language Capacity Building Program (LCBP). After examining longitudinal changes in brain activity of both groups, the researchers found that greater cerebellar-cerebral connectivity was observed in CCBP participants at post-intervention when compared with LCBP participants.
This empirical evidence adds to other research which has found that cerebellar-cerebral connectivity is associated with fine-tuning both our general thoughts and creative thinking. The researchers conclude,
“Our data suggest reduced engagement of cognitive monitoring and volitional control and putatively higher cerebellar-cerebral connectivity associated with improvization-based creativity training.
We anticipate that these results can guide future efforts to develop and measure the efficacy of interventions to enhance improvization-based creativity in adults and children across lifespan. Our results again suggest that creative capacity enhancement could be associated with emulation of the prefrontal “controller” function by internal cerebellar models.”
I’ve been researching and writing about the cerebellum for a long time. A decade ago, my father (Richard M. Bergland) and I created a split-brain model called ‘up brain-down brain’ that seated implicit learning in the cerebellum and explicit learning in the cerebrum. The latest Stanford research linking the cerebellum with enhanced creative capacity represents a new frontier of understanding the role that our "little brain" plays in cognition.
In recent years, I developed a hypothesis that the key to enhancing fluid intelligence is to optimize the functional connectivity between both hemispheres of the cerebrum and both hemispheres of the cerebellum. I call this superfluidity. My concept of superfluidity is illustrated in a quick sketch of the "Super 8" (below). I came up with the visualization of this construct while ruminating about cerebrum-cerebellum interconnectivity on a long jog. I drew this "Brain Map" in a few minutes, the second I walked in the door, still covered in sweat.
I believe that bridging the gaps between all four brain hemispheres creates optimal cerebellar-cerebral connectivity. Also, in addition to Saggar’s empirical findings on the neural basis of enhancing creativity by CCBP training, I have a hunch that regular aerobic training and exercise also optimize cerebellar-cerebral connectivity, thus increasing creative capacity.
As an example, Albert Einstein said of E=mc2, “I thought of it while riding my bicycle.” Although the association between aerobic exercise, the cerebellum, and “Aha!” moments is still a speculative and educated guess on my part . . . if you look at the daily routines of creative greats, there is a historical pattern of people having eureka moments when they’re walking, biking, hiking, jogging, etc.
I know from personal experience that I have most of my creative breakthroughs when engaged in some type of aerobic activity. Hopefully, future empirical research on the cerebellum will corroborate anecdotal evidence linking exercise and creativity.
For a long time, I’ve felt the cerebellum has been underestimated by the mainstream medical establishment. It’s exciting (and vindicating) to see researchers such as Manish Saggar at Stanford University and Jeremy Schmahmann at Harvard Medical School putting the cerebellum in the spotlight and giving our “little brain” the attention it deserves. Stay tuned for more cutting-edge cerebellar research coming soon!
To read more on the cerebellum, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,
© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.
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