Researchers discover how and where imagination occurs in human brains

September 16, 2013
Eleven areas of the brain are showing differential activity levels in a Dartmouth study using functional MRI to measure how humans manipulate mental imagery. Credit: Alex Schlegel

Philosophers and scientists have long puzzled over where human imagination comes from. In other words, what makes humans able to create art, invent tools, think scientifically and perform other incredibly diverse behaviors?

The answer, Dartmouth researchers conclude in a new study, lies in a widespread neural network—the brain's "mental workspace"—that consciously manipulates images, symbols, ideas and theories and gives humans the laser-like mental focus needed to solve complex problems and come up with new ideas.

Their findings, titled "Network structure and dynamics of the mental workspace," appear the week of Sept. 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"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," says lead author Alex Schlegel , a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. "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."

Scholars theorize that requires a widespread neural network in the brain, but evidence for such a "mental workspace" has been difficult to produce with techniques that mainly study brain activity in isolation. Dartmouth researchers addressed the issue by asking: How does the brain allow us to manipulate ? 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.

In the study, 15 participants were asked to imagine specific abstract visual shapes and then to mentally combine them into new more complex figures or to mentally dismantle them into their separate parts. Researchers measured the participants' with functional MRI and found a cortical and subcortical network over a large part of the brain was responsible for their imagery manipulations. The network closely resembles the "mental workspace" that scholars have theorized might be responsible for much of human conscious experience and for the flexible cognitive abilities that humans have evolved.

Explore further: Researchers debunk myth of 'right-brain' and 'left-brain' personality traits

More information: Network structure and dynamics of the mental workspace, PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1311149110

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4 comments

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peacemaker
1.5 / 5 (2) Sep 17, 2013
The main question is what makes the imagination grow wildly in dreams, when we dream we are transported to worlds and images full of mystery, beauty and which stun the mind. Human imagination is at power in unconscious state. But why?
thingumbobesquire
1 / 5 (4) Sep 17, 2013
Of course, imagination is simply a pattern of brain network activity...And the soul is located in the pineal gland. The illusion that creative thought and mind are merely physical constructs is the height of a purblind hubris that unfortunately vitiates the progress of science.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
3 / 5 (2) Sep 17, 2013
@peacemaker: Neuroscientists have shown that animals use a similar "workspace" to project what they were doing to end up in the current state and what they can do next. They do so in dreaming, likely to learn of what they do and to make permanent memories.

@tgbs: We have known since the 19 century that the mind is a product of the biological template as expected, because we then learned to control the (level of) consciousness with anaesthetics.

But even better, the LHC closed the gap or magic brain action 2013 with the completion of the standard particles. In the vacuum of particle physics everything that isn't forbidden will happen, and QED allows enough energy precision to close out any magic from knowing the brain state of ~ 10^14 neurons each with ~ 7000 synapses. Even an energy less magic can't be observing the state over the thermal noise. According to known physics there can be no 'soul'/deathlife/'rebirth' (or prayer agent) magic.

[tbctd]
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
3 / 5 (2) Sep 17, 2013
[ctd]

[Also, theologically philosophically speaking, such an agent calls for a located 'soul' golem as the one you strawman. The problem besides the magic is that that golem sitting inside its philosophical so called chinese room needs another 'soul' golem inside itself (in yet another chinese room) pulling the levers. And so infinitely regressing on.

The only way to avoid futile regression is to have a physical process. And this is such a case.]

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