The Cerebellum Deeply Influences Our Thoughts and Emotions
The cerebellum fine-tunes cognitive function like it fine-tunes muscle movement.
Posted March 17, 2015 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
I have been dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of the cerebellum for over a decade. Traditionally, most neuroscientists have considered the cerebellum (Latin for “Little Brain”) to have the relatively simple job of overseeing muscle coordination and balance. However, new findings show that the cerebellum is probably responsible for much, much more including the fine-tuning of our deepest thoughts and emotions.
Yesterday morning, I was driving to the gym listening to NPR when out-of-the-blue a report about groundbreaking research on the cerebellum being conducted by Jeremy D. Schmahmann, M.D.—who is a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School—came on the radio. Schmahmann is the director of the ataxia unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when I heard this broadcast coming over the air waves.
One of my dreams in life is that “cerebellar” (of or pertaining to the cerebellum) will someday become a household word. Hearing the report by Jon Hamilton on NPR yesterday was a sign that the cerebellum is finally being given the spotlight it deserves.
Please take a few minutes to listen to the NPR “Morning Edition” report from March 16, 2015. The second part of this story was broadcast on "All Things Considered." It is a very moving and informative report about the trials and triumphs of a man named Jonathan Kelcher, who was born without a cerebellum. His case study could open many new windows of understanding about how the brain and mind work by revealing what the very mysterious cerebellum is actually doing.
Conventionally, neuroscientists don't give the cerebellum much credit for higher executive functions, cognition, psychiatric disorders, or emotional regulation. Luckily, this outdated viewpoint about the cerebellum is rapidly evolving.
Anyone who has read The Athlete’s Way—or follows my posts here at Psychology Today—knows that the cerebellum is the prime driving force of my philosophy. The fact that I became a messenger and advocate for the cerebellum is logical. As an athletic coach, it was always sound advice to advocate that the cerebellum plays a pivotal role in every type of athletic performance.
The Cerebrum and Cerebellum Make a Dynamic Duo
When I developed The Athlete’s Way program, I simply created a split-brain model that put athletic “thinking” in the cerebrum and athletic “doing” in the cerebellum. By taking a dual-pronged approach based on this "up-down" model every athlete can optimize his or her performance by creating an ideal athletic mindset and physical genius through regular training that targets both hemispheres of the cerebrum and both hemispheres of the cerebellum. It’s very basic.
The unexpected turn in my advocacy for the cerebellum as more than just the seat of muscle memory came through many conversations with my father, Richard Bergland, who was a neuroscientist, neurosurgeon, and author of The Fabric of Mind while I was writing my first book.
The cerebellum is only 10% of brain volume but holds over 50% of the brain’s total neurons. Based on this disproportion, my father would always say, “We don’t know exactly what the cerebellum is doing, but whatever it’s doing, it’s doing a lot of it.”
My father had a hunch that the cerebellum might play a role in higher-order thinking and might somehow be connected to the deeper parts of our psyche. From a spiritual perspective, my dad also thought the cerebellum might somehow be affiliated with the subconscious reservoirs of one's soul.
When I got a book deal with St. Martin’s Press to write The Athlete’s Way back in 2005, I saw it as an opportunity to use a mass-market publishing house to advance potentially esoteric ideas about the cerebellum to a general audience.
My father and I spoke every day while I was writing the manuscript. Because I am not a scientist, I could stick my neck out and say things about the cerebellum from my "athletic perspective" that my father couldn’t publish in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
Our objective was to get a dialogue started about the cerebellum and move the conversation away from ubiquitous talk of "left brain-right brain" and towards what we both saw as the more salient divide between what I coined as "up brain-down brain." Under this new split-brain model, the cerebrum is the "up brain" and the cerebellum is the "down brain." These names were a direct and cogent response to "left brain-right brain."
What Is Dysmetria of Thought?
"Dysmetria" (English: wrong length) is defined as "a lack of coordination of movement typified by the undershoot or overshoot of intended position with the hand, arm, leg, or eye. It is a type of ataxia." It is also sometimes used to describe an inability to judge distance or scale.
Last night, I watched this fascinating YouTube lecture by Schmahmann titled, "The Cerebellar Affective Cognitive Syndrome: Implications for Neuropsychiatry" in which he talks about his theory of "dysmetria of thought" as related to the cerebellum.
For your convenience, I've cued this YouTube clip to begin about halfway through at a pivotal juncture. Please bookmark this video and watch it from the beginning when you have time. There is so much revolutionary and valuable food for thought held in Schmahmann’s research about the cerebellum conveyed in this video.
Based on the ideas in Schmahmann's lecture, it seems that the interconnectivity between specific regions of the cerebellum and specific regions of the cerebrum work together to fine-tune both muscle movements and our thoughts. This is a revolutionary concept.
The biggest “aha” moment I had while watching this lecture was learning about Schmahmann’s theory about the cerebellum's role in what he calls “dysmetria of thought.” Here is how Schmahmann describes dysmetria of thought:
“In the same way that the cerebellum regulates the rate, rhythm, force and accuracy of movements, so does it regulate the speed, consistency, capacity, and appropriateness of mental and cognitive processes ... Dysmetria of movement is matched, in the cognitive realm, by an unpredictability and illogic to social and societal interaction. The overshoot and inability in the motor system to check parameters of movement are equated with a mismatch between reality and perceived reality, and erratic attempts to correct errors of thought and behavior.”
I’ve been wrestling with the riddles of the cerebellum for over a decade. Last year, I was the opening presenter at the "Neuroscience Seminar Series" at Columbia. I gave a lecture about the cerebellum titled, "Superfluidity: Optimizing the Brain's Plasticity for a Healthier Life."
Schmahmanns’s dysmetria of thought theory is the missing link that I’ve been looking for—this theory helps to connect the dots on how the cerebellum plays a critical role in creating superfluidity between our thoughts, actions, emotions, and social interactions.
My lecture at Columbia titled “Superfluidity” is the topic of my book-in-progress of the same title. Like Schmahmann, I believe that the cerebellum is responsible for creating fluidity of both movement and many cognitive processes. My hypothesis is that maximizing brain function and human potential can be achieved by optimizing the interconnectivity between each of the brain’s four hemispheres.
Below is a rudimentary sketch I made a few years ago which illustrates my theory of "superfluidity" which is created through the synchronicity of connectivity between the gray and white matter of both hemispheres of the cerebrum and the cerebellum.
As an educated guess, I suspect that optimal brain function is obtained when all four brain hemispheres are working together in perfect harmony at an electrical, chemical, and architectural level. This is illustrated in my sketch above as represented by the multi-directional flow of arrows creating white matter pathways in every direction across all four brain hemispheres.
I believe that a peak state of consciousness occurs when every nook and cranny of each of your brain's four hemispheres are working together in synchronicity. I call this a state of “superfluidity” because it represents absolutely zero friction, zero entropy and zero viscosity between thought, action, and emotion.
Conclusion: The Cerebellum Could Take Center Stage in 21st Century Neuropsychiatry
These are very exciting times to be researching the cerebellum. The latest reports about the potential role that the cerebellum plays in our cognitive function, psychiatric disorders, and emotional regulation represent the cutting edge of neuroscience and could be revolutionary.
Giving the cerebellum the credit it deserves will lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of the human mind. Advances in our understanding of the cerebellum could lead to better treatments for anyone who suffers from psychological disorders including: autism spectrum disorders (ASD), bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction, etc.
From the perspective of positive psychology, a better understanding of the cerebellum could inspire people from all walks of life and ages to create daily habits and behaviors that fortify the connectivity of all brain hemispheres. I believe that creating "superfluidity" between all four brain hemispheres is the key to optimizing an individual’s physical, intellectual, and psychological potential throughout his or her lifespan.
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