Cerebellum Up Close

The Cerebellum is my favorite part of the brain. I like the sound of the word, which means “little brain” in Latin; though if you check the meaning of cere and bellum, you might be surprised at their individual meanings. How they come together to form “little brain” is all a matter of Latin semantics.

In dissecting a sheep’s brain, I see why the cerebellum is described as resembling cauliflower. (The cauliflower is on the left.) Unlike a head of cauliflower, though, the human cerebellum is quite a bit smaller, about the size of a golf ball or a fist. I’ve also seen it described as two halves of a peach and as “two clams side by side”.

The cerebellum is located in the rear of the brain, below the occipital lobes and attached to the brain stem. The white mass, which branches out tree-like, is the “white matter” and consists of nerve axons. There is so much white matter because the cerebellum has so many neurons. The darker, brownish tissue is “gray matter” and consists of nerve cell bodies. The Purkinje cells, which comprise the third of three layers of the cerebellum, “are the most complex nerve cells and interact with perhaps as many as 100,000 other nerve fibers, making more connections than any other cells in the brain.”

Like the rest of your brain, the cerebellum has two halves that are connected by a thick bundle of nerves. It comprises only ten percent of the brain’s physical size, but contains more than 50 percent of all the neurons, which translates to more nerve cells than any other area of the brain.

“Information is constantly being fed to the cerebellum, which makes modifications as needed.” Messages from the muscles, tendons, and joints are “sent to the cerebellum, which does not initiate movement, but monitors and modifies the progress of movements.” The cerebellum sends information to the cerebrum, which then determines if anything needs to be changed and relays that information back to the cerebellum, which makes the changes. The cerebrum and cerebellum work together much like a pilot and copilot.

This mini-brain has huge responsibilities, many of which call out to me as a teacher. The idea of kids or adults sitting still for long periods of time while trying to learn makes no sense to me, given the tasks ascribed to the cerebellum. Anyone who teaches should aim to take advantage of this powerful portion of the brain. Here is what the cerebellum does:

• handles motor patterns
• coordinates muscle movement
• maintains bodily equilibrium (posture, balance)
• handles cognitive patterns (speaking)
• automates certain repetitive tasks (breathing, heartbeat)
• responds to novelty


Most of the quoted information in this post comes from these two books:

  • The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding the Brain, by Arthur and Mitchell Bard, is a clearly written explanation of how the brain functions. While some may scoff at the title, I found the book most helpful for getting me started on the anatomy of the brain, and continue to reference and reread parts.
  • The Great Brain Book – An Inside Look at the Inside of Your Head, by HP Newquist, may have been written for young adults, but I found it a highly accessible story of the brain, from the history of its study to the way it works. There is a wonderful two-page spread that details what happens in your brain while you are watching a movie. I suspect most of us rarely “think” about how we think in such detail!
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4 thoughts on “Cerebellum Up Close

  1. Pingback: 52 Weeks: Week 23 « the lungs of our city

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