Mysteries of Imagination in the Human Brain

By Alice Orszulok

Humans are an incredible species.  For example, we can make art, think scientifically or mathematically, invent new tools, and plan years into the future.  How do we do this?  And why aren’t any other species of animals on Earth as creative as we are?  Scientists at Dartmouth College believe their study brings us closer to the answer.

Imagine an apple.  Now imagine it spinning around very fast.  Now imagine it zooming in really big and out really small.  Now imagine it with eyes and a smile, wearing a hat, and dancing around.  Imagining those things can seem very easy, but something in our brain must be making it all happen.  In their study, lead author Alex Schlegel and his team at Dartmouth tried to find out a little bit about how the brain does that.

“Our lab is very interested in how the human brain enables such a wide range of creative behaviours, and we think a big part of the answer is that we have a very rich mental world that we can use to do things like imagine things that don’t exist, or play around with ideas, or think about what might happen in the future,” Schlegel told Wonder of Science.

The researchers talk about imagination as a “mental workspace” because it is like an inner workshop where we can construct new ideas, break old ideas apart, or just play around, all without ever lifting a finger.  However, how it works in the brain is a big mystery, and something the lead researcher and his team are trying to figure out.

In the study, the scientists started by showing participants shapes on a computer screen.  They then took the shapes away and told the participants to imagine those shapes in their heads and to either mentally combine them into new more complex shapes, or mentally break them apart into new simpler shapes. By scanning the participants’ brain activity using fMRI while they performed these tasks, they could look for differences in the way different areas of the brain worked and communicated with each other depending on the task.

Understanding these processes will give the researchers insight into where human creativity comes from, and may even allow us to recreate those same creative processes in machines. Being able to make creative machines is still probably far in the future, although there are already some examples starting to show up.

“Whether or not creative machines can prove useful to humans will depend on our own creativity in deciding what they should do,” Schlegel says.

For instance, it can take up to 22 minutes to send a signal to Mars. That makes it very difficult to control a robot like the Mars rover named Curiosity.  What if Curiosity could solve problems on its own?  The more Curiosity can think for itself, the better an explorer it will be.  Or, what if we could feed a computer program a bunch of information we have collected about cancer cells, and the computer program could then think of a creative new drug that stopped those cells from dividing uncontrollably?

There are probably millions of other examples of how creative machines could make human life richer and happier, but for the time being we can just be happy with how incredible the human brain is and the amazing possibilities it gives us in our own lives.

Source [Science Daily]