George Bernard Shaw once called imagination the “beginning of creation.” Joseph Joubert called it the “eye of the soul,” and J.K Rowling defined it as the “uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not.”
However, science is still at a loss to understand what imagination is, exactly. Scientists have long tried to determine what goes on in the brain, neurologically, when humans access their imaginations — and the same scientists have often wondered where different aspects of imagination might reside. Now, a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finally sheds some light on the matter, reports Scientific American.
According to the article, the study found that “creative people can stretch their imagination to more distant futures, places, perspectives and hypothetical realities” by “tapping into a brain network that only they can access.”
Researchers — lead by Meghan Meyer, an assistant professor of psychological and brain science at Dartmouth College — have found that this brain network accessed by creative types runs through the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, the angular gyrus, and the hippocampus. These interconnected portions of the brain — portions employed by the imagination — were referred to by researchers as the brain’s “default network.”
The results came about after 300 randomly selected study participants were asked to envision what the planet would look like five centuries from now. Other hypothetical scenarios included a world where the continents had never been separated, what life would be like if the participant lived the life of an angry dictator, and new ways to use a pen or megaphone. Participants who scored well in terms of creativity were rated as having better “distal” imagination.
The tests were then repeated, but this time with two specific groups of people instead of a random selection. The first was a collection of participants who all worked in — and had received awards in — fields that involved creativity, such as writers, actors, and visual artists. The second consisted of equally heralded participants, but from fields such as finance, law, and medicine.
After the creative group outperformed the others in written responses — and self-reported mental vividness of the situations they were asked to envision — the researchers decided to test if the results stacked up neurologically. Meyer termed what researchers were looking for as “imagination muscles.”
Sure enough, when examined with an MRI machine, the scientists found that the creative types were using a part of the brain — one called the dorsomedial default network — that was not activated in the professionals in other fields. The differences presented themselves as participants were asked questions that involved the far-off future.
Roger Beaty — a psychology researcher at Penn State University — called the findings a “big step forward” in understanding the brain.
“The findings provide insight into how the brain is able to imagine different situations and what makes creative experts exceptional at imagining distant ones.”
Scientists are now reportedly looking into whether the dorsomedial default network can be improved with training, or if it an innate ability.