The Neuroscience of Imagination

Your brain loves to imagine to visualize ideas, find solutions to problems, and clarify your dreams. This creative and imaginative process responds to a number of fascinating neural mechanisms.
The Neuroscience of Imagination

Last update: 13 May, 2021

The neuroscience of imagination tells us that there’s a creative genius within us all. In fact, when it comes to innovation and seeing new possibilities, the brain is a perfect machine. It’s also a fascinating system that allows you to daydream, create new worlds, and relieve the tensions and problems in your life.

Pablo Picasso said that everything you can imagine could come true. Indeed, every artistic, social, and cultural product is the result of an idea. Furthermore, everything around us, including buildings, technology, clothing, and even the fabric of our social, political, and educational systems, were all imagined at some point by somebody.

Imagination is the step before creation. Without it, and without the creative process, nothing would be possible. People are made of dreams and ideas. In fact, they determine much of who you are.

For example, you imagine what you’d like to be or what you’d like to have. You imagine in order to escape from reality for a moment. However, you also imagine because your brain is a hardened dreamer that takes you to other worlds and environments.

“Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure.”

-David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish

A mind made of cogs and wheels.

How does the neuroscience of imagination work?

The neuroscience of imagination forms a part of your daily life. Experts say that people use it most in childhood.

Indeed, in your early years, the world seems limitless and your mind is incredibly creative. However, as you grow older, you tend to get bogged down by routine and responsibility. Your imagination gets rusty, cutting off some of your untapped potential.

For this reason, it’s often said that, along with imagination, you need a challenging sort of personality to turn some of those ideas into reality. However, this is something you can always learn and develop.

Imagination equals perception

Numerous studies reveal fascinating data regarding the neuroscience of imagination. One such study was conducted by Dr. Luigi Afganti of the University of Padua. He pointed out that perception and imagination share the same neural mechanisms.

Imagine that you’re sitting by the sea at sunset for a moment. When you start this imaginative process, your brain achieves a number of things. It gets you to see the sea, the sky, and the sun on the horizon in your mind. Furthermore, you hear the waves, feel the breeze, and even smell the salt in the air.

Therefore, you’re able to experience sensations via your imagination without the presence of the relevant stimuli. This is because you use the same neural circuits for perception and imagination.

A woman standing in front of the sea.

Imagination and creativity don’t only occur in one hemisphere of the brain

A widespread neuromyth suggests that the right hemisphere of the brain is the creative side and that the left is the logical side. However, cognitive psychologists such as Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman point out that creative and imaginative processes take place in many regions of the brain not just in one specific area.

Imagination works across a set of networks

The neuroscience of imagination claims that imagination works across a set of neural networks distributed throughout the brain. Here they are:

Executive attention network

Imagination requires you to focus on the creative process itself. This activity requires a great deal of energy and sophistication. In fact, when it comes to creating, imagining, and inventing, you usually make use of data stored in your brain.

Then, you take this data and transform it. For this process, you need a network that allows you to access your memory, thoughts, consciousness, and concentration. The executive control network controls all these processes at the same time.

The default network or imaginative network

Your imagination connects you to your own self-awareness. You access that secret treasure chest that contains what you are, what you’ve been through, what you want, and what you’re looking for, etc. This second network, known as the default or the imaginative network, allows you to create multiple universes in your mind all at once. You can think of yourself in the past, in the future, and in your relationships. It’s a complex network multiple areas of your brain connect to.

Neural circuits involved in the neuroscience of imagination.

The salience network

The salience network monitors everything that you perceive from the outside environment and links it into your consciousness. It’s a set of neural networks that are organized to collect all outside information, process it, and prioritize what it considers to be most important. Then, it takes that information to different areas of your brain and the imaginative process begins.

The neuroscience of imagination provides some quite incredible data concerning this key subject. However, when it comes to the question of enhancing your imaginative abilities, the answer is simple. Ditch routine.

This is because your brain needs new stimuli. It likes challenges. They arouse your curiosity and take you away from the everyday. In fact, activities as simple as traveling, meeting new people, learning, reading, and experiencing anything out of the ordinary maximizes your creativity and imagination. They’re liberating.

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  • Agnati, L. F., Guidolin, D., Battistin, L., Pagnoni, G., & Fuxe, K. (2013). The neurobiology of imagination: Possible role of interaction-dominant dynamics and default mode network. Frontiers in Psychology4(MAY). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00296