How the brain takes us beyond our lived experiences.
What do you use your imagination for? Whether you spend hours agonizing over constructing an outfit for dinner or visualizing your best self, our mind can serve as an excellent space to be creative and thoughtful. But how does this manifest in the brain physically?
Like many things, scientists do not have a universally agreed upon mechanism for how our brain processes imagination, and there’s good reason for this.
One being that with the technology we have now, we can’t “see” the processing going on in different parts of the brain. This is similar to how someone can’t see the forces that keep an airplane in motion in the air but can determine which forces are out of balance based on the aircraft’s motion.
For example, a plane that can remain off the ground but is moving slower than desired has an imbalance between its thrust and drag.
Instead of tossing brains in the air, MRI scans and other technology can be used to observe activity and changes in the brain and make inferences from that information.
Though this is helpful in assigning functions to areas of the brain, abstract ideas – like imagination – are only theory.
Philosophers and empirical psychologists have had centuries and decades, respectively, to question and present ideas about what it is to imagine, so the physical sciences are playing catch up. Even in the relatively short time it has been studied, neuroscientist have come up with some interesting evidence and discoveries.
First, how does neuroscience define imagination?
There are slight variations in how it is worded, but a general definition of imagination is when you create mental images that are related to something that has never been experienced before by the subject.
But how do you visualize or create something in your mind that you’ve never heard or seen before?
Older studies from the early 2000’s present evidence in favor of there being an overlap of the neural networks that are responsible for retrieving memory and imagining future events.
Thinking about it, it makes sense.
A traveler who is trying to decide between two countries for their next vacation would try to imagine what it might be like to go there in order to make a final decision.
Someone sitting in a cold office, itching to use their PTO, may likely imagine going somewhere sunny, let’s say Morocco, for vacation. They lean back in their chair and see camels walking across a red desert and people walking around in headscarves and hijabs. Maybe this person has never been out of the country before and has no idea what this place looks like. Where are they getting this image from?
Sticking with the “overlap” idea, they must utilize their past knowledge to make a future projection. This can be from movies, books, tourist guides, or details they’ve heard from someone else who has traveled there before.
They may have watched a documentary a year ago and learned that Morocco is a country that follows Islamic laws and customs.
If they have a basic understanding of the biomes that are found in Africa, they could figure out that there are forests and oases as well. But they could have recently seen a clip on the news covering a story there that featured an image of the desert which would lead them to recall that image more quickly.
Together, the memories and information stored in your brain could help you create new images of moments you have yet to experience.
Since this initial musing among others, evidence has been found that there might be specific areas of the brain dedicated to imagination.
A small research team found that the brain’s default mode network (DMN) activates when we daydream, plan, and imagine the future. Even more interesting is that there are two subnetworks that process the valence and vividness of what we imagine.
So, if the traveler stuck at their day job pictures Morocco as the perfect getaway and is excited about going, the dorsal DMN will show more activity. In the same vein, if they are having trouble imagining what it would be like to actually go there, then there would be decreased activity in the ventral DMN.
This information does put scientists one step closer to understanding just what our brains are capable of, but there is still a lot left to learn.