Exploration of the Imagination

What is imagination?  Defined by Merriam-Webster, imagination is “The ability to imagine things that are not real: the ability to form a picture in your mind of something that you have not seen or experienced, or to think of new things.”

It seems like the very idea of defining imagination is a paradox, for in defining something you place a parameter around it and describe it like it fits inside a box.  How can you describe a stream of endless abstract thoughts in just a sentence or two?  I do think that the best explanation for defining imagination has already been established by the show, Reading Rainbow, with “I can go anywhere, I can be anything, just take a look, it’s in a book, a reading rainbow.”




Although the very essence of imagination may not be explainable with current technologies, science is giving us a better understanding of what happens when we use our imagination.  Based upon a new study by cognitive scientists at Dartmouth College, our ability to come up with new ideas and mental imagery is the result of a “mental workplace” in our minds.  This “mental workplace” is a neural network which encompasses activity coordinated across multiple regions of our brains.

The study consisted of imagining mental shapes in the mind while undergoing an fMRI scan.  15 participants were asked to look at pictures of abstract shapes.  Some had to concentrate on maintaining the shape of the image in their mind, while others were asked to change the shapes around.  This was accomplished by either deconstructing the shapes into different parts or combining the shapes together to make an entirely new shape. The part of the brain that researchers expected to have the most activity was the visual cortex, which is responsible for processing imagery.  However, 12 different regions of the brain were responsible for manipulating the imaginary shapes.

“We saw differences in activity all over the brain when we compared to control conditions,” said lead author Alex Schlegel, a Ph.D. student in cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth College.  “It does seem rather than being a single area responsible for imagining or manipulating, it seems like lots of areas have to work in concert.  What we’re starting to show is that eventually, when we start to get to these complex cognitive behaviors, we need to start looking away from isolated areas, but rather how the brain acts as a whole.”

Although this was a rather small study, it is one more step to help our species understand what happens in our brains whenever we use our imagination.

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