The science of imagination

Our DPSN theme for October is “imagination”.  Imagination is defined as our ability to form mental images or concepts.  We asked our bloggers what comes to mind, what they imagine, when they hear the word imagination!  We’d like to hear your thoughts too, so let us know in the comments below, or jump over to our Facebook page to join the conversation.

I have a confession to make (but it’s not such a bad one).  TED, a worldwide organisation which brings together speakers on education, business, science, tech and creativity, has a Youtube channel entirely devoted to short educational videos on a wide range of topics.  My confession is that I’ve been slightly addicted to watching them lately, finding myself lost in a spiral of absorbing information on everything from how you digest food to how people lived in ancient Rome. They’re fascinating, and I strongly suggest you try them out.

I watched a fantastic wee short recently on the neuroscience of imagination, which explains in very easy to understand language how exactly our brains imagine.  The idea is that when we see or experience something in real life, the object or encounter fires a certain “set” of neurons in our brain, encoding the image into our memory.  Then later, if we try to recall the image, the same set of neurons can fire – allowing us to hold an idea of what we once experienced.

But what about imagining something that we have never seen or experienced before?  The hypothesis is that to do this our brains activate multiple sets of neurons and then reassemble them to create an entirely new image.  It’s like a mental collage, if you like, creating from bits and pieces of previous memories something in our mind that we have never seen before.

The video also talks about the role of myelin – a lipid-rich substance which insulates nerve cells to increase the speed of signalling between neurons in our brain.  We start to develop a little myelin (through a process called myelination) before we are even born, and then even more rapidly when we are children – particularly in the first three years of our lives.

This corresponds with our ability to learn and develop a whole host of skills, including our ability to think and reason, understand language, talk, move around – and our ability to use our imagination.  Myelination keeps going through our teenage years and early adulthood and although it slows down, we can keep adding myelin to parts of our brain right throughout our lives.

So what does this mean?  It means learning and creative play are not just fun things for kids to do, but are crucial in terms of laying down the brain architecture we need to think imaginatively later on in life.  It also means that no matter how old we are, active use of our imagination is great for our brains.

I would argue that adults who can think imaginatively are also good at coming up with novel solutions to some of the major social and environmental problems we are facing today.  Someone with a healthy imagination can be creative, flexible, can understand other viewpoints and put ideas together from bits and pieces of what they already know.

I think a healthy imagination might just be crucial to our survival as a species.  So don’t forget to be creative, play and imagine what could be possible – it’s good for your brain!

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