In the early 19th century, neuroanatomist Franz Joseph Gall believed that the cerebellum, the little attachment to the brain that packs half of the neurons in our head, is the “organ of the instinct of reproduction.” The bigger it is the stronger our libido.
But if you’ve ever lost your balance, or staggered home from a party after a few too many drinks, you’ll know what happens when it isn’t working properly.
The cerebellum (meaning little brain in Latin) has critical roles in controlling and co-ordinating movement. Without a cerebellum, you would have a hard time walking in a straight line or learning to ride a bike – functions that it performs automatically and unthinkingly.
But some researchers now believe that the humble little brain has roles beyond just fine-tuning movement: It may also contribute to higher mental functions such as thought and emotions.
FOR most of us, the ability to navigate our environment is largely dependent on the sense of vision. We use visual information to note the location of landmarks, and to identify and negotiate obstacles. These visual cues also enable us to keep track of our movements, by monitoring how our position changes relative to landmarks and, when possible, our starting point and final destination. All of this information is combined to generate a cognitive map of the surroundings, on which successful navigation of that environment later on depends.
Despite the importance of vision for navigation, congenitally blind people – those born blind – can still generate neural representations of space. Exactly how is unclear, but it is thought to be by using a combination of touch, hearing and smell, and some are even known to use echolocation. Spatial navigation in the congenitally blind is therefore thought to involve different brain networks than those engaged in sighted people. A team of Danish researchers now report, however, that the mechanisms underlying spatial navigation in the blind are much the same as those in sighted people, due to the brain’s remarkable ability to reconfigure itself.