The prominent role of the cerebellum in the development of culture

Larry Vandervert has recently published an article in Cerebellum & Ataxias investigating the role of the cerebellum in the learning, origin and advancement of culture. It’s been traditionally thought that the cerebral cortex was responsible for this instead, and so in this guest blog, Larry talks more about the alternative theory.

The neuron counts are based on studies by Lent, R., et al., 2012.
The neuron counts are based on studies by Lent, R., et al., 2012.
Vandervert, L., 2016

Score: cerebral cortex 16; cerebellum 69

Nearly three decades of brain-imaging research on the cerebellum has recently begun to strongly challenge the commonsense view that the cerebral cortex is where all the action is. In a new article appearing in Cerebellum and Ataxias, I have proposed that the 69 billion neurons of the cerebellum and not the 16 billion neurons of the cerebral cortex do all of the really ‘brilliant’, heavy lifting work of the brain.

In a nutshell, I have argued that during the past tens of thousands of years the cerebellum has silently (the cerebellum operates below the level of conscious awareness) produced human culture. And not only that, I argue that it is the cerebellum that has allowed humans to constantly advance the key pillars of culture, everything from rearing practices to everyday customs, art, science, music, and technology.

The cerebellum increased three- to fourfold in size in the last million or so years. During this same time, vast cognitive connections between the newer parts of the cerebellum and the cerebral cortex (including its language areas) developed.

How does the cerebellum play its prominent role?

According to cerebellum researchers, the cerebellum constantly uses information from the cerebral cortex to compute (and create) better ways of doing whatever we do.

According to cerebellum researchers, the cerebellum constantly uses information from the cerebral cortex to compute (and create) better ways of doing whatever we do. Think of the possibilities.

The cerebellum silently learns and constantly error-corrects super-efficient models of everything from helping children to learn language, to rapid text messaging, playing musical instruments, doing art work, controlling hand-puppets, to, in Einstein’s case, coming up with E=MC2.

The cerebellum then sends these super-efficient models of how to do things back to the cerebral cortex. This appears to be the only way the cerebral cortex is enabled to make all of its great accomplishments.

More details on the magic of the cerebellum

The secret power of the cerebellum is that it is a predictive computing machine. It constantly predicts (for the cerebral cortex) which body movements, thoughts and emotions work best in any given situation.

It also fractionates and blends parts of its super-efficient models to constantly get even better results. For example, it does all of these things when we errorlessly learn to play the piano. It also does these things just to allow us to seamlessly (and automatically) blend into the social expectations and customs of culture.

Along with colleagues Paul Schimpf and Hesheng Liu, I proposed that super-efficient fractionated/blended models of the cerebellum led to all culturally-driven creativity, including Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Leading cerebellum researcher Masao Ito, who won the Japan Prize for his decades of work, praised our extension of the roles of the cerebellum to creative thought.

That the cerebellum ‘teaches’ the cerebral cortex to become better at everything it does, helps provide answers to what traditionally have been very puzzling questions.

How do the members of a culture unconsciously come into sync?

If the cerebellum is the main driver of culture, and it operates below the level of conscious awareness, how do the members of a culture come into social sync?

If the cerebellum is the main driver of culture, and it operates below the level of conscious awareness, how do the members of a culture come into social sync? This is a difficult but very interesting story.

Here’s a simple way to understand what happens during the silent cerebellar enculturation process. First, it is important to note that the cerebellum looks at everything from arms, legs, video games, iPhones, to puppets as ‘controlled objects’, or, if you wish, objects it must learn to control. Arms and legs are the obvious examples of controlled objects.

But this really means that, for the unconscious processes of the cerebellum, one’s entire body is a controlled object. It has also been pointed out by cerebellum researchers that from the standpoint of the cerebellum, we and other people are also mutually and socially controlled objects.

So, as we are enculturated through socialization, ‘culture’ is the result of unconsciously learning to predict, the behavior of the typical person we might encounter. Prediction is really the key to what is meant by ‘control’ in the case of the cerebellum.

Language is a great facilitator of this observational learning process, because it provides great detail to the prediction (control) process. This language facilitation occurs much as it did 10,000 years ago.

Children with under-developed cerebellar social control

A strong preliminary confirmation of the foregoing cerebellar modeling approach to the unconscious learning of culture are the cases socially austere orphanages and of excessive television viewing.

I provide evidence that the lack of social interaction in young children in austere orphanages results in diminished development of the cerebellum.

In the new article in Cerebellum and Ataxias I provide evidence that the lack of social interaction in young children in austere orphanages results in diminished development of the cerebellum. This then results in lower school performance after the children leave the orphanages.

Likewise, too much television viewing removes the child from the silent cerebellar modeling of complex social demands of actually-present people. That is, the cerebellar modeling of ‘television people’ or television cartoon characters are non-consequential social ‘controlled objects’.

So, the child unconsciously learns to become a social ‘bystander’. This thus results in a less-developed executive working memory in the child. It has been shown that this further results in a poor school social adjustment and in lower grades. This amounts to a lesser degree of socialization into culture.

In summary, there is now strong evidence that the learning, maintenance, and advancement of culture are accomplished primarily by the recently evolved cognitive functions of the cerebellum and not, as traditionally thought, by the cerebral cortex.

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