Mysteries of Imagination Traced in the Human Brain

Mysteries of imagination traced in human brain
The mysteries of creative thinking and imagination have been researched to demonstrate their origins within the human brain

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”

What makes us appreciate different art forms
What urges human beings to craft art? Why is the human mind drawn to these pieces?

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.”

The Study

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.

Functional MRI scans used to monitor imaginative thinking
The researchers used fMRI scans to study changes in the pattern of bloodflow throughout the brain

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.

Other Research

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

PNAS Journal Source

Press Release Link

Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology

Huffington Post Link

Medical Xpress Link

5 Responses to "Mysteries of Imagination Traced in the Human Brain"

  1. Umi Redwalla   September 17, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    As usual, science only perceives from the perception of science! Did it occur to any of the scientists to first look to the origin of thoughts?? Where do thoughts originate from?? This source is the source of all creative and imaginative thoughts or for that matter any thoughts — not the brain!!! The brain is and will always remain the symptom of thoughts. i.e., the processor of thoughts and not the originator of thoughts. Thoughts originate from Consciousness or Awareness (as defined in Advaita) as clearly seen from experiential observation. This isn’t theory but actual observation. The brain is but a processor of those thoughts to create biological effects — a sense of creativity and imagination, and a sense of Doership where none exists. That is all.

  2. wayne   September 17, 2013 at 9:43 am

    “the ability for imaginative thinking is what makes us uniquely human. ” What bollocks.

    In the 60’s, opposing thumbs were what made us uniquely human. Oops. Then in the 70’s the ability to make tools made is uniquely human. Oh. Never mind. What is the source of our fetish with defining human bodies as unique in the universe? Maybe it stems from a lack of imaginative thinking.

    The ability to create mental images is not unique to humans. Nor is the ability to manipulate them. And you can’t make the argument that some images are more ‘real’ than others; google color conformation to get the idea that what the brain sees is always made up.

    And you can’t make the argument that we build big stuff and no other specie can do that. All that this says is we care more about the big stuff that we build than the glue that holds an abalone shell together. Oh. Never mind. A glue that is super strong and sets under salt water; turns out we do care about that. My apologies. I misspoke.

    Perhaps this fetish with uniqueness comes from some bigotry gene. That would explain colonialism, racism, nationalism; it’s just a chemical link to the concept of what we consider to be our tribe.

    So then it must be some protein or hormone that makes us uniquely human. Oh. Please don’t tell my cats I said that. They consider me part of their tribe.

    • Christy Rodgers   September 17, 2013 at 9:58 am

      Excellent comment. Making vastly inferior copies of what biological systems can already create while destroying the complex ecosystems we barely understand is a dead end for us – perhaps our main difference from the other animals is that they aren’t capable of such arrogant stupidity.

    • brichka   September 17, 2013 at 12:47 pm

      Thank you.

      When I was reading the article, my first thought was: The next step will be measuring who has more of imagination – men vs. women, white vs. non-white, per country, and so on.

  3. Phil   September 17, 2013 at 9:33 am

    Blue, Orange, Green, Brown, Slate. White, Red, Black, Yellow, Violet.

    The brain at the top looks like the wiring I’ve been doing at the phone company for the past 35 years.

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