Where Imagination Lives In The Brain
September 17, 2013

Scientists Locate Possible Location Of Imagination In The Human Brain

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

While both philosophers and scientists have searched for ages for the biological source of the human imagination, the authors of a paper appearing in this week’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences report that they have located it in the human brain.

In the study, lead author Alex Schlegel, a graduate student in the Dartmouth University Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, and colleagues report that imagination rests somewhere in a widespread neural network that consciously manipulates images, symbols, ideas and theories while also giving men and women the mental focus needed to come up with new ideas and think scientifically.

“Our findings move us closer to understanding how the organization of our brains sets us apart from other species and provides such a rich internal playground for us to think freely and creatively,” Schlegel said in a statement. “Understanding these differences will give us insight into where human creativity comes from and possibly allow us to recreate those same creative processes in machines.”

While experts had previously predicted that the imagination would require a widespread neural network in the brain, evidence to support the existence of this so-called “mental workplace” has been difficult to uncover using techniques that primarily study brain activity in isolation, the researchers said.

“Dartmouth researchers addressed the issue by asking: How does the brain allow us to manipulate mental imagery? For instance, imagining a bumblebee with the head of a bull, a seemingly effortless task but one that requires the brain to construct a totally new image and make it appear in our mind's eye,” the university added.

Schlegel and his colleagues recruited 15 participants for their study. The researchers asked each of them to imagine specific abstract visual shapes, and then instructed them to either combine each shape into more complex figures, or mentally dismantle them into their separate components.

Each subject’s brain activity was studied using fMRI, and the researchers found a cortical and subcortical network over a large part of the brain was responsible for their imagery manipulations. They found a close resemblance between this area and the “mental workplace” theorized by scholars, leading Schlegel’s team to suggest that this could be the source of a large percentage of human conscious experience and flexible cognitive skills.

“Though the study was small and only explored imagining visual shapes, it provides support for the kind of widespread neural network of imagination that other scientists have suggested exists, but haven't seen in action before,” Shaunacy Ferro of Popular Science said. “Further studies will likely need to continue exploring how these neural networks function, but the researchers suggest a mental workspace could be integral to humans' flexible cognitive abilities.”

“We saw differences in activity all over the brain when we compared to control conditions. It does seem rather than being a single area responsible for imagining or manipulating, it seems like lots of areas have to work in concert,” Schlegel added. “What we’re starting to show is that eventually, when we start to get to these complex cognitive behaviors, we need to start looking away from isolated areas, but rather how the brain acts as a whole.”