Science Of Imagination

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination,” Albert Einstein once said. “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

Although the use of imagination has led to many of the greatest discoveries ever made, our understanding of the science of imagination has been surprisingly limited. 

Alex Schlegel, a researcher in the Dartmouth College Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences completed research that indicates that the activity of what we call the imagination is the product of a widespread network of neurons (what the researchers call the “mental workspace”) that consciously alters and manipulates images, symbols, and ideas, and gives us the intense mental focus that we need to come up with new ideas and solutions to complex problems.

Schlegel says “When asked what his scientific thought process looked like, Einstein would say that he’d take an image in his mind and play around with it and manipulate it, looking at it from different angles — combining and breaking things apart”. “The way we think about the mental workspace is in terms of all these really incredible, flexible things that humans can do. We can create art, we can think scientifically, we can think mathematically. And in a lot of those cases, that requires the ability to have a mental representation of ideas, symbols and images, and to be able to play around with them in the mind.”

The research involved 15 participants being analyzed by an fMRI scanner while they were asked to visualize specific abstract shapes, then told to imagine combining those shapes into more complex figures. The researchers discovered a large cortical and subcortical network across the brain that produced the manipulations of imagery, the so-called mental workspace.

The network included areas that control visual processing along with other areas that relate to attention and executive processes. “They’re all working together to make manipulations happen,” Schegel said.

The results help us understand how the organization of the brain creates an environment that allows us to think openly and creatively.

The Dartmouth findings (along with those from other recent studies) have essentially debunked the previously popular theory that the “right brain” governs creative activity. There is indicating that the human brain is far more vast and interconnected than suggested by the simplistic right brain/left brain explanation. 

Schlegel said that “Our findings move us closer to understanding how the organization of our brains sets us apart from other species and provides such a rich internal playground for us to think freely and creatively”. “Understanding these differences will give us insight into where human creativity comes from and possibly allow us to recreate those same creative processes in machines.”

The researchers are still trying to figure out what makes one person more creative than another. 

Imagination and exercise

Albert Einstein said of the theory of relativity, “I thought of it while riding my bicycle.” If you exercise regularly you have probably experienced the circulation of ideas in your mind during the physical activity. Although this is common, neuroscientists are still at the early stages of understanding how and why it works. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson said of Thoreau: “The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.” 

Louisa May Alcott was an unexpected ‘ultra-runner’ in the 1800s. She famously said:

Active exercise was my delight from the time when a child of six I drove my hoop around the Common without stopping, to the days when I did my twenty miles in five hours and went to a party in the evening. I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run. No boy could be my friend until I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy. . . My wise mother, anxious to give me a strong body to support a lively brain, turned me loose in the country and let me run wild.

Henry Miller was an avid endurance cyclist. He said:

Each man has his own way. After all, most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game or whatever. You’re working, your mind is working on this problem in the back of your head. So, when you get back to the machine it’s a mere matter of transfer.

Joyce Carol Oates was also a runner and said this about her writing process:

Running seems to allow me, ideally, an expanded consciousness in which I can envision what I’m writing as a film or a dream. I rarely invent at the typewriter but recall what I’ve experienced. I don’t use a word processor but write in longhand, at considerable length. (Again, I know: writers are crazy.) By the time I come to type out my writing formally, I’ve envisioned it repeatedly. I’ve never thought of writing as the mere arrangement of words on the page but as the attempted embodiment of a vision: a complex of emotions, raw experience. The effort of memorable art is to evoke in the reader or spectator emotions appropriate to that effort. Running is a meditation; more practicably it allows me to scroll through, in my mind’s eye, the pages I’ve just written, proofreading for errors and improvements.

The Creative Porcess

In a landmark study of the creative process Nancy Andreasan noticed similarities in the general descriptions of the creative process from many participants. The common phrases included: “I can’t force inspiration. Ideas just come to me when I’m not seeking them-when I’m swimming or running or standing in the shower.” “It happens like magic.” “I can just see things that other people can’t, and I don’t know why.” “The muse just sits on my shoulder.” “If I concentrate on finding the answer it never comes, but if I let my mind just wander, the answer pops in.”

Andreasan’s research suggests that the creative process moves through five phases. 

  • It starts with preparation–an analytical time when the basic information or skills are assembled. 
  • The second phase is incubation–a more intuitive and subconscious time where you attempt to connect the dots. 
  • The third phase is perspiration – a work like a phase that eventually leads to revelation
  • Revelation– light bulb moment when you realize that you have “cracked the code”. 
  • The process ends with production – a phase where the insights are organized into a useful form that can be presented to others.

Power of imagination

Research about how training that occurs purely within the mind has been shown to be almost as effective as actual, physical practice. 

Neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, Pascual-Leone, taught two groups of people that had never studied piano a sequence of notes. He showing them which fingers to move and let them hear the notes as they were played. The participants in the “mental practice” group sat in front of an electric piano keyboard for two hours a day for five days and just imagined both playing the sequence and hearing it being played.  A second “physical practice” group actually played the music for two hours a day for five days. The researchers mapped the brains of all participants before commencing the experiment, then again during each day of the experiment and after the experiment. When the training period was finished, both groups were asked to play the sequence and the accuracy of their performance was measured by some software.

Pascual-Leone found that both groups learned to play the sequence and both showed similar brain map changes. It is worth noting that mental practice alone produced the same physical changes in the brain and motor system that is required to play the piece. By the end of the fifth day, the changes in motor signals to the muscles were the same in both groups, and the players who had practiced mentally were as accurate as the actual players were on their third day.

It is important to note that the level of improvement at five days in the mental practice group was not as great as in those who had physically practiced. However, when those in the mental practice group completed their mental training were given one additional two-hour physical practice session, their overall performances reached the same level as those of the physical practice group’s performance at five days. This appears to indicate that mental practice is an effective way to prepare for learning a physical skill with minimal physical practice.

In a separate experiment, Drs. Guang Yue and Kelly Cole show how imagination can actually strengthen muscles. The study created two groups—one that did physical exercise and one that imagined doing physical exercise. Both groups exercised a finger muscle, Monday through Friday, for four weeks. The physical group did repetitions of fifteen maximal contractions with a twenty-second rest between each. The mental group only imagined doing fifteen maximal contractions with a twenty-second rest between each (while also imagining a voice shouting at them, “Harder! Harder! Harder!”).

The participants who actually did the physical exercise became 30 percent stronger at the end of the training period. The participants that only imagined doing the exercise became 22 percent stronger. Again, the research tells us that imaginary practice can produce changes in the brain and improve physical performance at almost the same level achieved from actual physical exercise. 

Other experiments have confirmed that imagining something visually triggers the same pattern of neuronal activity that occurs when we  actually see it. 

Sparking the imagination

What do you do when you are writing or doing any creative activity and need to spark your imagination into action? How do you trigger the imagination to start working on something when you need it? Nicole Speer, Jeremy Reynolds, Khena Swallow, and Jeffrey Zacks have completed research that shows how reading affects the brain. When participants read about actions performed by a character in a story, the regions of their brains that are associated with doing that same action in real life were activated. This confirms the existence of a mirroring mechanism in the brain.

Elaine Scarry studied how famous writers create scenes in the imagination. She found that some writers, such as Thomas Hardy and Marcel Proust, were able to depict scenes vividly. Scarry explains that in order to successfully paint a picture in the reader’s mind, the writer must depict the action in extended time, with sufficient detail of what object is acted on and what the effects are. Scarry suggests that writers offer several elements in a way that allows readers to use their imaginations to construct scenes in their minds. 

Imagination and children

Research increasingly indicates that there are benefits that arise from children engaging in pretend games from the age of approximately two years old to age six or seven. 

Psychologist Sandra Russ identified several different cognitive and affective processes that are associated with pretend play. Her research involved fantasy, make-believe, symbolism, organization, cognitive integration of seemingly separate content, and divergent thinking (the ability to come up with alternative ideas, themes, and symbols). Pretend to play allowed for the expression of both positive and negative feelings as well as the ability to integrate emotion with cognition (Jent, Niec, and Baker, 2011; Seja and Russ, 1999; Slade and Wolf, 1999).

Additional research indicates that pretend games give the children an early opportunity to practice self-regulation, including reduced aggression, delayed gratification, and civility (reviewed by Berk, Mann, and Ogan; Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Berk, and Singer). Taking on different roles allows children the opportunity to learn social skills, such as communication, problem-solving, and empathy (Hughes).

Another important benefit of early pretend play may be its positive impact on the child’s capacity for cognitive flexibility and creativity (Russ, 2004; Singer and Singer, 2005). Russ’s analysis indicates that early imaginative play was associated with improved creative performance years later. Root-Bernstein’s research of established creative individuals, such as Nobel Prize–winners and MacArthur Foundation genius grant awardees, indicated that this group played more games involving make-believe worlds than did those in a control group. 

A vigorous inner and outer life

Dean Keith Simonton has conducted research that indicates that consistent creative output is as much a result of a vigorous spirit as it is from creative ‘genius’. A significant proportion of creativity can be attributed to an attitude that results in a curious, bold, and tenacious personality and mindset. 

In every occupation Simonton studied-from composers, artists, and poets to inventors and scientists, he discovered the same pattern: a high number of creative breakthroughs was directly linked to the quantity of work produced and a refusal to let failure dampen enthusiasm or persistence. Regular physical activity reinforces the personality traits needed to be a consistent generator of creative thoughts. 

Research seems to be confirmed by looking at creative greats like Pablo Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci who didn’t create a constant stream of brilliant works. They had the stamina and boldness to continue producing after failure and the confidence to concede that many of their ideas were not going to become significant. Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work….genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”   This research is consistent with our previous discussion of high energy versus low energy mindsets. The research by Simonton appears to indicate that the established geniuses that he studied approached their work with a high energy mindset.

Next article in this series: “Power Of Imagination”

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