Where does imagination come from?

Where does imagination come from anyway? New research shows it’s more complex than we ever, uh, imagined.

There’s a lot we still don’t know about how the brain generates new ideas. Brain mapping is in its infancy, and creativity is hard enough to define, never mind objectively study. How do you identify “creative” subjects? How do you see creativity on a brain scan? And how creative can you really expect people to be on demand, while sitting completely still in an MRI machine?
Despite these challenges, several leading neuroscientists have made significant headway in this new area of study, giving us early insight into what’s happening in our heads as we imagine and disrupting old theories about what makes a person creative.
Most notably, there’s the concept that a person is either “left-brained” (translation: an analytical, literal-minded bore) or “right-brained” (a creative, artsy flake). Turns out, the creative process requires both sides of the brain, working in tandem. More specifically, it involves three large-scale brain networks:

  1. The Executive Attention Network is used for tasks that require intense focus, such as concentrating on a challenging lecture or solving complex problems.
  2. The Imagination Network, or the Default Network, is called on when we imagine situations based on personal experiences, such as when we remember something that happened in the past, think about the future, or consider alternative scenarios to the present. The Imagination Network also comes into play when we try to consider what someone else is thinking.
  3. The Salience Network constantly monitors both external events and our internal thoughts, tapping into whatever information is most salient to solving the task at hand. This network is important for dynamically switching between networks.



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