Imagination in the Brain

As researchers continue to unveil the neural correlates of creativity in the human brain, it has become apparent that our minds are quite adept at imagining objects, people and experiences which “feel” real [1]. Similar brain regions are activated whether imagining things or experiencing things, though there is variability in the magnitude of regional activation and functional connectivity across regions. Additionally, recent findings suggest that the ability to imagine the future is associated with cognitive flexibility [2]. That being said, can imagination and creative problem solving be bolstered through cognitive flexibility training? Conversely, can cognitive flexibility be improved by fine tuning one’s imagination? 

Much of the discussions during the development of the SEISMA Neuroscience Edition focused on the interplay between different modes of creativity and creative thought. We wanted to ask the question: what does inspiration and imagination look like in the brain? In particular, the complementary processes of convergent and divergent thinking were examined across different contexts. While convergent thinking may help one imagine the exact solution for a well-posed physics problem, divergent thinking would be necessary for imagining designs for a new game or app which incorporates the physics mechanisms of interest [3].

Ultimately, imagination is deeply linked to one’s personal perception and conceptualization of the world. Context is key – a fundamental factor in mediating how each of us uniquely visualizes and interprets things [4]. With respect to the neuroscientific spectrum of imagination, the intent of a creative session will fundamentally influence the outcome of the session. For example, imagining numerical solutions to a mathematical problem and imagining visual imagery for a potential painting are related cognitive processes with unique neural signatures. Individual mental representations of things are further modulated by particular features, such as vividness and emotional valence [5,6].

References

1.    Beaty RE, Thakral PP, Madore KP, Benedek M, Schacter DL. Core Network Contributions to Remembering the Past, Imagining the Future, and Thinking Creatively. J Cogn Neurosci. 2018; 1–13.

2.    Roberts RP, Wiebels K, Sumner RL, van Mulukom V, Grady CL, Schacter DL, et al. An fMRI investigation of the relationship between future imagination and cognitive flexibility. Neuropsychologia. 2017;95: 156–172.

3.    Zhang W, Sjoerds Z, Hommel B. Metacontrol of human creativity: The neurocognitive mechanisms of convergent and divergent thinking. Neuroimage. 2020;210: 116572.

4.    Anderson AJ, McDermott K, Rooks B, Heffner KL, Dodell-Feder D, Lin FV. Decoding individual identity from brain activity elicited in imagining common experiences. Nat Commun. 2020;11: 5916.

5.    Lee S, Parthasarathi T, Kable JW. The Ventral and Dorsal Default Mode Networks Are Dissociably Modulated by the Vividness and Valence of Imagined Events. J Neurosci. 2021;41: 5243–5250.

6.    Fulford J, Milton F, Salas D, Smith A, Simler A, Winlove C, et al. The neural correlates of visual imagery vividness – An fMRI study and literature review. Cortex. 2018;105: 26–40.


Dr. Abhrajeet Roy is a research scientist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota who also serves as the neuroscience editor for SEISMA magazine. Aside from his interests in cognitive science, Abhrajeet enjoys gardening, mushroom hunting and contemplating the societal implications of the technological singularity.