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The Role of the Cerebellum in Creativity and Imagination

In humans, the cerebellum has changed greatly both in size and functional roles.

Key points

  • The cerebellum was known to coordinate movement, posture, and balance, but recent studies show that it also controls higher mental processes.
  • A sign that the cerebellum plays specific roles in humans is that it has increased three-to four-fold in size compared to that in other primates.
  • A study showed that greater creativity displayed by individuals drawing images was associated with higher levels of activity in the cerebellum.

A central theme of my blog ‘Mind Shift’ and also of my book of the same name, is that human consciousness, although having many similarities to the consciousness of other species, also has some very unique characteristics. And I believe that this similarity, but also uniqueness, will surely be reflected in the distinctive structure and function of the human brain. But do we have specific examples from neuroscience to back up such a belief?

One particular brain region that I think provides a good example of the ways that the human brain has developed in a different direction compared with the brains of other species is the cerebellum. This brain region, which means ‘little brain’, is called this because like the cerebrum it has two hemispheres and a highly folded surface. The cerebellum is involved in the regulation and coordination of movement, posture, and balance; but there is increasing evidence that it may also play important roles in ‘higher’ mental processes.

Previously the cerebellum has been more linked to control of balance and coordinated movement of the body’s muscles. Yet recognition of a role for this brain region in higher mental functions should not be a total surprise, given emerging facts about its contribution to brain function, particularly in humans. For although it occupies only 20 percent of human brain volume, the cerebellum contains 70 percent of its neurons. And a sign that the cerebellum may have specific roles to play in our species is that it has increased three- to four-fold in size compared with that in other primate species in just the last million years of human evolution. How might this brain region influence imagination and creativity? Surprisingly, it seems to do so in ways that are similar to its role in coordinating movement.

Research indicates that the human cerebellum can enhance the functions of the cerebral cortex in four different ways. First, it increases the speed, efficiency, and appropriateness of processes in the cortex by sending it signals. Second, it develops neural routines in preparation for both expected and unexpected circumstances; for example, playing the piano without sheet music, memorising multiplication tables, or throwing a basketball into a hoop. Third, by encoding serial events and then reconstructing the sequence, the cerebellum can alert the cortex to what may happen before it actually does, thereby predicting future events and helping the cortex prepare for them. Fourth, the cerebellum aids in the correction of errors through extended experience and practice.

Evidence for a role for the cerebellum in the creative process, and important insights into how it plays such a role, have come from a study by Allan Reiss and colleagues at Stanford University. Volunteers were placed in an fMRI scanner and asked to draw either ‘action words—such as ‘vote’, ‘levitate’, ‘snore’, and ‘salute’—or, as a control, a simple zigzag line. Drawing a zigzag line engaged the fine-movement and attentional-focus areas of the brain, but did not require creative processing. Later, the drawings were rated by experts for creativity, accuracy, and other parameters, and then compared to the brain scans.

The study produced two unexpected findings. First, greater creativity displayed by individuals carrying out the tasks was associated with higher levels of activity in the cerebellum. Second, although more difficult drawing tasks increased activity in the cerebral cortex, higher creativity scores were associated with reduced activity. Reiss believes the findings show that the cerebellum is an important coordination centre for the rest of the brain, allowing other regions to be more efficient. But he also thinks they illustrate why a deliberate attempt to be creative may not be the best way to optimise a person’s creativity. While greater effort to produce creative outcomes involves more activity of executive-control regions, it may actually be necessary to reduce activity in those regions to achieve creative outcomes. Trying too hard may prove counter-productive when it comes to creativity.

These findings have obvious implications for education; they suggest that teaching approaches that are based on making the student consciously ‘work’ at learning may be counter-productive. Indeed, Michel Thomas, who pioneered a unique approach to language learning that I, like millions of other people around the world, have used successfully to learn a variety of foreign languages, specifically implored his students not to ‘try and remember’. The reason was that he believed that the active decision to do so could actually impede learning ability. And since the cerebellum is particularly adapted to unconscious, repetitive acts, this provides an explanation for how it can apparently play an important role not only in regulating movement but also in creativity and imagination.

Interestingly, given what I have said previously about the importance of tool use in human evolution, Larry Vandervert, of American Nonlinear Systems, has hypothesised that the great expansion of the human cerebellum in the last million years coincided with a blending of neural mechanisms of vocalization with visual and spatial working memory, and that this blending was based on progressive tool use. Drawing on Lev Vygotsky’s arguments about the importance of play in the development of imagination, he has also proposed that play in both animals and humans is based on the same mechanisms of repetition in the cerebellum.

However play in humans has evolved from simple training for the unexpected, to long-term survival by predicting, mitigating, and preventing the unexpected. As animal play evolved toward specifically human play, a cerebellum region called the dentate nucleus has become a river of nerve tracts running from the cerebellum to different regions of the cortex. And as it increased the number of nerve tracts interconnecting with higher mental functions, it may also have supported imagination in play and the development of creativity in the adult.