Science and imagination — two words that, going by common wisdom, don’t seem to belong together. But as with memory, emotions, and other elements of the human consciousness that tend to be seen more as matters of the muses than the domain of empirical research, imagination has a strong scientific basis — even if we’re only just beginning to understand it.
But what exactly is imagination? As cognitive scientist Jim Davies notes in his 2010 TEDx Talk, people mean two different things when they talk about it: creativity and picturing things in the mind. In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the science behind both.
The Mental Workplace
As part of a recent study, researchers set out to determine — at least in part — which region of the brain allows us to imagine things. Reasonably enough, their expectation focused on the visual cortex — the part of the brain that processes imagery. Other work on the visual cortex has lately seen scientists correctly identify types of images imagined by participants — not quite mind reading, but something close!
What the researchers discovered, however, is that the visual cortex isn’t the only region of the brain that’s responsible for powering the imagination. When those involved in the study were asked to manipulate imaginary shapes in their minds, 12 different “regions of interest” were activated.
This has lead cognitive scientists to hypothesize that imagination is the result of a neural network, or “mental workplace,” that coordinates activity across the brain. In other words, making something with your hands requires tools and materials, and the same is true of making something with your mind.
Believing What’s Imagined Is Real
For children, differentiating between the real and imagined can be difficult — and researchers have found the “sweetspot” age when it’s demonstrably hardest.
In a study designed to measure the believability of something real (the garbage man) and something imaginary (Santa Claus) across age groups, confidence in reality was found to increase with age. However, 5-year-olds were the most likely to fall for a falsehood. This may be because younger children are too young to put together the evidence of Santa’s existence (presents under the tree, disappeared cookies), and older children are able to understand that this evidence is misleading.
All of this suggests that the power of the imagination is closely tied to the stages of a child’s development.
Left, Right — Wrong
You’ve heard it before: the left side of the brain is cold and logical, while the right side is creative and wild. Some people are “left-brained” (accountants) and some are “right-brained” (artists).
As you might’ve guessed — and as neuroscience can now attest — this is totally wrong. Creativity does not reside entirely in one half of the brain.
Instead, the latest findings suggest that the larger creative process — from preparation to verification — actually consists of many different cognitive processes working together. Depending on the stage and target of your creativity, different parts of the brain, spanning both sides, are used to get the job done.
So next time somebody tells you they’re “right-brained,” you can tell them they’re “left-brained” too.