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How Stimulating the Cerebellum May “Unclamp” Writer’s Block

Cerebellar stimulation improves automatic (but not controlled) verbal fluency.

Key points

  • Language functions have long been considered a "left brain" function of the cerebral cortex's left hemisphere.
  • New research puts the cerebellum (Latin for "litte brain") in the spotlight as key to many language functions.
  • Cerebellar stimulation helps the brain automatically think of appropriate words in free-associative chains.
  • Activating the cerebellum may help "unclamp" writer's block, especially when the cerebrum is overthinking.

Just as a bicycle chain may be too tight, so may one's carefulness and conscientiousness be so tense as to hinder the running of one's mind. Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free; and the service it will do you will be twice as good. —William James, "The Gospel of Relaxation." (1899)

Source: BlueRingMedia/Shutterstock
Cerebellar means "relating to the cerebellum." The cerebellum's two hemispheres are tucked beneath the cerebrum's left and right hemispheres. The right cerebellar hemisphere and left cerebral hemisphere work together during language processing.
Source: BlueRingMedia/Shutterstock

Language processing, word retrieval, and verbal fluency have historically been considered lateralized "left brain" cognitive functions facilitated by localized regions in the cerebral cortex's left hemisphere. Although the cerebellum has traditionally been viewed as the seat of coordinating motor functions and fluid movements, since the late 1990s, accumulating evidence suggests that the cerebellum also coordinates the flow of conceptually-related words when speaking or writing fluidly.

When the automatic flow of words from one's mind onto the written page loses its fluidity, many authors describe the temporary loss of verbal fluency as "writer's block." As an athlete turned writer, I learned early in my writing career that activating my cerebellum by doing some rhythmic, bipedal moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (walking, slow jogging) helps to get the words flowing again and seems to "unclamp" writer's block.

Cerebellar Damage Is Often Linked to Aphasia

Beyond writer's block, many people with damage to specific portions of their cerebellum experience aphasia marked by difficulty expressing themselves with words. In 2022, a study found that theta burst stimulation of the right cerebellar hemisphere's Crus I/II area holds promise as a potential strategy for improving language functions in people with chronic post-stroke aphasia.

Accumulating evidence suggests that the evolutionary expansion of the cerebellum's Crus I and Crus II regions led to cerebro-cerebellar circuits that allow the cerebrum and cerebellum to optimize whole-brain functions by working together during higher-order cognitive processes such as using language.

A September 2023 paper reviewed current literature on the cerebellum's role in language processing. This analysis highlights how the posterolateral cerebellum's Crus I and Crus II regions form reciprocal circuits with the cerebral cortex's language centers.

As the authors explain, "Together, evolutionary expansion of the cerebellum and connections between the cerebellum and supratentorial language regions [including the prefrontal cortex] provide the neurobiological substrates for cerebellar involvement in language processing and the enormous expansion of language abilities in humans."

Crus I/II Facilitate Syntactic and Semantic Language Functions

Last year (2022), another study on syntactic and semantic processing for language comprehension identified significant involvement of the Crus I and Crus II portions of the right cerebellum, especially when the cerebrum's cerebral capacity gets overloaded for whatever reason (e.g., overthinking).

According to this study's authors, "Resting-state fMRI demonstrated intrinsic functional connectivity between the right crus-I/II and language-related regions in the left cerebrum. These findings suggest that the right crus-I and crus-II are involved, respectively, in the syntactic and semantic aspects of sentence processing. The cerebellum assists processing of language in the cerebrum when the cognitive load is high."

Stimulating the Cerebellum Improves Automatic Word Retrieval in Free-Associative Chains

 Petríková et al. (2023) Brain Structure and Function/Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0 DEED)
Electrical stimulation of the cerebellum facilitates automatic but not controlled word retrieval.
Petríková et al. (2023) Brain Structure and Function/Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0 DEED)

This month, a new transcranial direct current stimulation study involving 136 healthy adults shows how electrical stimulation of the cerebellum using tDCS improves automatic (fast, effortless) retrieval of semantically related words linked in free-associative chains. Interestingly, stimulating the cerebellum didn't enhance controlled (slow, effortful) word retrieval. This October 2023 study appears in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Brain Structure and Function.

"Our data show that the cerebellum is engaged in extracting associative information from the system of semantic representations, established and strengthened/automated by learning, and indicates a domain-general role of this [cerebellar] structure in automation of behavior, cognition, and language," the authors explain.

Interestingly, another October 2023 fMRI study shows how activation of specific hubs within the cerebellum facilitates fluid intelligence and enhances the human mind's ability to connect the dots between seemingly unrelated ideas, a hallmark of creativity. (See "The Neuroscience of Superfluid Thinking.")


Anecdotally, it seems to me that the automaticity of cerebellum-driven verbal fluency and automatic word retrieval flourishes when the cerebral cortex stops overthinking or clamping down on the cerebellum's ability to make free associations and turn these word combinations into sentences. Anything that promotes mind-wandering seems to facilitate this process.

My lived experience as someone who writes daily suggests that walking and other bipedal activities (e.g., jogging, biking, riding an elliptical trainer) that engage both hemispheres of the cerebellum seem to give overtaxed language centers in the cerebrum a break and prevent writer's block, or, as William James would say, helps us "unclamp" our intellectual machinery and allows our minds to run free.


Leibovici Anat, Raizman Reut, Itzhaki Nofar, Tik Niv, Sapir Maayan, Tsarfaty Galia, Livny Abigail. "The Role of the Cerebellum in Fluid Intelligence: An fMRI Study." Cognitive Systems Research (October 04, 2023) DOI: 10.1016/j.cogsys.2023.101178

Dominika Petríková, Martin Marko, Rastislav Rovný & Igor Riečanský. "Electrical Stimulation of the Cerebellum Facilitates Automatic but Not Controlled Word Retrieval." Brain Structure and Function (First published: October 02, 2023) DOI: 10.1007/s00429-023-02712-0

Amanda LeBel and Anila M. D’Mello. "A Seat at the (Language) Table: Incorporating the Cerebellum Into Frameworks for Language Processing." Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences (First published: September 14, 2023) DOI: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2023.101310

Hironori Nakatani, Yuko Nakamura & Kazuo Okanoya. "Respective Involvement of the Right Cerebellar Crus I and II in Syntactic and Semantic Processing for Comprehension of Language." The Cerebellum (First published: August 04, 2022) DOI: 10.1007/s12311-022-01451-y

Kai Zheng, Mingyun Chen, Ying Shen4, Xinlei Xu, Fanglan Gao, Guilan Huang, Yingying Ji, Bin Su, Da Song, Hui Fang, Peng Liu, Caili Ren. "Cerebellar Continuous Theta Burst Stimulation for Aphasia Rehabilitation: Study Protocol for a Randomized Controlled Trial." Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience (First published: June 02, 2022) DOI: 10.3389/fnagi.2022.909733

William James. "The Gospel of Relaxation." Essay from James' lecture series published in a book, William James Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals. Henry Holt and Company (First published in 1899) DOI:

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