Imagine Your Brain Imagining | By Shakib Rahman

The brain is a complicated thing with all its neurons and interconnections, so it’s not very surprising that we are still learning about how it works.  Equally tricky to explain in the process of imagination and creativity, but new research has provided some insight into how these complex brain functions work.

Scientists at Darthmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire used an MRI scanner to visualize the brains of people as they imagined irregular shapes and combined multiple smaller pieces together to form larger chunks.  Using actively thinking brain scans, the scientists were able to make a map of which parts of the brain were active when we imagine.

The study found that about 11 different brain regions are involved in solving complex visual, spatial and symbolic tasks. This “mental workspace” differed based on whether subjects were asked to manipulate or maintain symbols and other visual imagery.

The eleven areas activated varied from medial frontal cortex, involved in executive function and decision making, to posterior parietal cortex, the area engaged when performing preplanned movements.  Even the cerebellum, a part of the brain mostly involved in movement and balance, was activated in this mental task.

All these regions prove that a large variety of brain regions seem to be involved in any creative task demonstrating for the first time that the brain has a large decentralized global workspace rather than smaller localized circuits for imagery and imagination. When you’re daydreaming and start to drift off you’re engaging multiple parts of your brain, or so this study would suggest.

But how could such a system be important, beyond the desire to understand how the brain works?  Alex Schlegel, a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and lead author explained that these findings will provide “insight into where human creativity comes from and possibly allow us to recreate those same creative processes in machines” (quote from Medical Xpress: http://medicalxpress.com/news/2013-09-human-brains.html).

The ability to mentally manipulate and imagine abstract shapes and symbols is what sets humans apart from most other species on the planet. Dr. Peter Tse, Alex’s supervisor, says “What makes our species unique is being able to manipulate things in our mind and make them real as we imagined”.

And it is this difference that seems to set humans apart, the ability to imagine and then create. The reason why we have these connections and how specific parts connect to each other isn’t entirely clear at this point, but with this new map, researchers can begin on testing which parts are necessary for imagination.

Perhaps one day we can use these early models of creativity and imagination to improve education of more abstract concepts, by engaging specific parts of their brains with tasks like the ones presented in this study.  Maybe even one-day machines can be taught to be creative as well.

Image CC katerha

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