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The Neuroscience of Imagination

06 Jan

The Neuroscience of Imagination

Posted By: 
Kaitlyn Guay

Ever wondered how your imagination works? You’re not alone. Scientists have been trying to figure that out for decades. This intriguing video put forth by TED-ed displays the most recent hypothesis on how our brains can imagine and compile things we’ve never seen, like, for example, a horse surfing a wave. (For any of you about to say you have, in fact, seen this… pics or it didn’t happen.)

It’s pretty fascinating. Using your imagination is actually a quite sophisticated and complex process for your brain. (Remember that five-armed alien with cookie eyes and duck feet you drew in fourth grade? Yes. Feel proud.) During childhood, our brain learns to label things to create a “neuronal ensemble.” That’s right. There’s a neural orchestra in your brain, constantly soundtracking the landscape of our lives. (Talk about teamwork!)

So how does this work?

Take a pineapple. “When you look at an object, thousands of neurons in your posterior cortex fire. These neurons encode various characteristics of the object: i.e. Spiky, fruit, brown, green, and yellow… linking them together in what’s known as a neuronal ensemble… If you try to imagine a pineapple later, the whole ensemble will light up, assembling a complete mental image.” Neuroscientists call this the Hebbian Principle.

Here’s what makes our imagination so thrilling: to picture a horse on a surfboard, our brains have to be able to pull up separate neural ensembles that make up a horse, a surfboard, and a wave, and put them together all at the same time. This is more complex than it seems. The neural pathways we use to create each image are all different, and are different lengths apart. To actually imagine something you’ve never seen, you have to be able to time the travel of the known objects to combine at exactly the same time, regardless of where their pathways are mapped in the brain. Pretty cool!

Scientists have a hypothesis called the Mental Synthesis theory. Basically, it says that the prefrontal cortex is the “puppet master.” It connects to the posterior cortex using long spindly fibers. The theory is that the prefrontal cortex “pulls the strings,” orchestrating the proper timing of the combined neuronal ensembles.

Does your brain hurt yet? It’s okay. Neuroscience is fascinating and overwhelming. We still don’t know all our brain’s secrets. The phenomenal part to fathom is just how amazing our minds are. They’re so beautiful, so complex, that our top scientists are still just guessing at how we can imagine things we’ve never seen. Our brains are capable of miraculous things.

What would you like your brain to dream up today?