Researchers discover source of imagination in human brain

National Monitor, Lance Tillson 

According to a news release from Dartmouth College, researchers have discovered the source of imagination in the human brain. Their research answers several longstanding scientific questions: what gives people the ability to make beautiful art, construct novel tools and achieve other extremely distinct actions.

The researchers think that imagination comes from a sweeping neural network, known as the brain’s “mental workspace,” that deliberately shapes images, symbols, idea and theories and provides humans with the mental focus required to determine intricate problems and produce novel ideas.

“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,” notes lead author Alex Schlegel , a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, 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.”

Researchers believe that human imagination demands a sweeping neural network in the brain, but proof for this “mental workspace” has been hard to generate with methods that primarily look at brain activity in isolation. The researchers welcomed the obstacles by trying to determine how the brain lets humans mold mental imagery. For example, thinking of a horse with the head of a human, an ostensibly easy job but one that means the brain has to form a completely novel image and have it materialize in our mind’s eye.

The researchers asked 15 participants to think about precise abstract visual figures and then to mentally blend them into novel more intricate forms or to mentally disassemble them into their separate parts. They determined the 15 participants’ brain activity with functional MRI and discovered a cortical and subcortical network over a significant section of the brain was answerable for their imagery moldings. The network looks a lot like the “mental workspace” that researchers have suspected might be responsible for a lot of human conscious experience, as well as the malleable cerebral capacities that humans have developed.

The study’s findings are described in greater detail in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.