Researchers working at Dartmouth University have traced what they herald the “mental workspace” of the human brain, which may provide a clearer understanding as to the origins of imagination. Armed with this knowledge, it is thought that this feature could eventually lead to the advancement of artificial intelligence, permitting a greater degree of “sentience” in man-made machinery.
Throughout history, scientists and philosophers have attempted to uncover the inspirations behind some of the most seminal pieces of art ever created. Music, dance, paintings and fictional literature are just a few of the media formats that require mankind to delve into a specific part of our brain responsible for imaginative thinking.
Imagination and the “mental workspace”
Arguably, the ability for imaginative thinking is what makes us uniquely human. But, why do human beings have these thought processes to begin with? What compels man to create great works of art, or craft new tools and technologies with which to work?
During a recent study, entitled network structure and dynamics of the mental workspace, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers believe they may be closer to answering these elusive questions.
The authors describe the brain as having a “mental workspace,” capable of consciously assimilating and manipulating pictures, ideas, hypotheses and symbols. This mysterious component of the brain allows human beings to solve intricate problems and brainstorm new ideas.
Lead author of the ambitious project, Alex Schlegel, operating within the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences explains how these faculties distinguish humans from other species, who often operate out of instinct and necessity:
“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 then goes on to discuss the implications of comprehending these differences. Establishing some of the key differences in the neurological organization between humans and primitive animals could offer important insight into the origins of creativity. This knowledge, according to Schlegel, could even be used to simulate “… creative processes in machines.”
During the study, the researchers attempted to explore some of the imaginative processes occurring inside the minds of 15 human participants. This was achieved non-invasively, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans.
fMRI scans monitor the activity of the human brain by measuring subtle changes in bloodflow. When a particular region of the brain becomes activated, it requires a concomitant increase in bloodflow to the region; this ensures delivery of glucose and oxygen for respiration within the metabolically active parts of the brain. The authors used this technique to determine which areas of the participants’ brains were activated, during periods of creative thinking.
To get the subjects’ creative juices flowing, they were asked to perform a series of basic mental tasks. For example, when investigating an individual’s imagination, the researchers might ask their participants to imagine the face of an owl placed on to the body of a turtle. This may seem like a relatively straightforward request; however, such a task requires the human brain to fabricate more complex figures, from their constituent parts, and make the final product emerge into the mind’s eye.
During Schlegel’s study, both cortical (the outermost layer of neural tissue) and subcortical regions of the brain were accessed during mental manipulation. Whilst volunteers were mentally modifying images, the researchers observed vast areas of the brain to be implicated in the overall process.
Speaking to Huffington Post, Schlegel offers her tentative thoughts on why human beings appear to demonstrate advanced imaginative processes, unlike many other animals. One possibility is that humans have superior capacity to use the mental workspace. On the other hand, it is also plausible that stronger neural connections exist between parts of the brain, involved in the mental workspace, relative to other animals.
Although imaginative thinking appears to have been traced to this so-called workspace, further research could suggest a neurological basis for why some people are much more creative or artistic than others.
A study by Andreas Fink, from the Institute of Psychology in Austria, revealed differences in the electroencephalogram readings in professional and novice dancers, whilst engaging in creative thinking.
Meanwhile, Ambar Chakravarty working at the Department of Neurology in Calcutta, India, suggests that creative cognition firstly begins in a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal lobe (VMPFL), whilst creative output takes place in the dorsolateral prefrontal lobe (DLPFL). These two regions of the brain may work in tandem, relaying information to a myriad of other regions across the brain. According to Chakravarty, appreciation of art results from activation of the limbic system, which is involved in emotion.
What do you think to the study’s findings? Sound off in the comments section below.
By: James Fenner