Scientists discover the ‘mental workplace’ of human imagination

When we conjure up a mental image, or produce some innovative new idea, where does that come from? Science has been trying to figure that out for some time, and now a team of U.S. scientists has revealed a complex network in our brain that allows human imagination to work.

Research into how the brain and the mind work has already figured out that it's not just one part of our brain that generates our imagination. Instead, it's a network called the 'mental workplace', which draws from many parts of our brain as we summon and manipulate mental images. Until now, though, scientists haven't been able to actually see which parts of the brain participate in this network.

In a study of 15 people, researchers at New Hampshire's Dartmouth University asked participants to look at a bunch of shapes, and then picture those shapes in their mind's eye. Some kept the shape as is, while others picked it apart into smaller shapes, or combining it with other shapes to make whole new ones, all while having their brain scanned. What the researchers found was that, as expected, this mental manipulation involved the part of the brain that controls vision, but that wasn't all. Their scans showed a total of a dozen different parts of the brain were called into play for this mental exercise.

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This research study was small and was limited only to mental images, so it didn't involve all the ways that we use our imagination. However, it gives a great basis for future studies, which will look at exactly how the different parts of the network interact to produce imagination. Most importantly, though, as the researchers point out, discovering how wide-spread this mental network is shows that when it comes to the complex behaviour of our brain and mind, just looking at specific areas of our brain is only giving us part of the picture. We need to start looking at how the entire brain comes into play to give us a better understand of how our minds work.

(Image courtesy: Schlegal et al.)

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