By Muna Agwa
Picture this: you’re walking through the woods and all of sudden a brilliant fairy appears before you! She has glittering holographic wings and magnificent hair. Now, this has definitely never happened to you, but why were you able to imagine it?
Imagination is a grand mystery for the most part, as most other big scientific questions are. There are still so many unanswered questions when it comes to how we picture things in our heads, but there are a few things we do know.
When we create a mental image, we activate multiple regions of the brain. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for high-level thinking and meaningful speech, lights up especially. The medial temporal lobe, which is in charge of forming deliberate memories, also plays a critical role in how people use their imagination.
Imagination is believed to stem from memories because the brain takes what it knows and finds many different ways to arrange it. When we have an experience: we see something, touch something, smell something, or taste something, we “download” it into our brains as a memory. Every memory has a special neuronal code so that every time we fire up that memory we use that code.
Here’s the fun part: when it’s time to imagine something, we fire up several neuronal codes all at once. This symphony of electrical impulses works together so that you can create entire worlds in your head! So let’s return to walking in the woods. If you’ve ever seen a tree (I hope you have), your brain has encoded it as tall, dark, rough, and leafy. You return to that code to create the image of a forest. This is somewhat the same for the fairy, although nobody’s ever seen one, your brain takes what it knows from the natural world and the culture around you and constructs something that might look like this:
If that wasn’t anywhere near what you imagined, don’t worry! That’s the beauty of imagination: everybody can be presented with the same facts and yet the end results are diverse. Our personalized networks of neuronal codes all work differently, and that’s something to celebrate.
Harris, P.L. “APA PsycNet”. Psycnet.apa.org, 2021. Online. Internet. 1 Feb. 2021. . Available: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2000-16798-000.
Pearson, Joel et al. “Mental Imagery: Functional Mechanisms and Clinical Applications”, 2021. Online. Internet. 1 Feb. 2021. .
Vyshedskiy, Andrey. “The neuroscience of imagination”. TED-Ed, 2021. Online. Internet. 1 Feb. 2021, https://ed.ted.com/lessons/the-neuroscience-of-imagination-andrey-vyshedskiy.