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Where do artists get their vivid imagination?

When artists imagine a fictitious world, a neural network is active in them that is usually only activated in other people when they are resting and daydreaming.

By AddictiveWritingsPublished 2 years ago 4 min read
Where do artists get their vivid imagination?
Photo by Vinicius "amnx" Amano on Unsplash

Five-year-olds invent imaginary friends; teenagers can imagine being in love; and adults plan career advancement, buying a house, or a trip around the world. We all have some imagination and use it in everyday life. But when we want to imagine something far removed from our temporal or spatial reality - perhaps the world in the year 2500 or what it would be like to live on the moon or Mars - we often find it difficult to make the scenes appear in our inner eye.

For decades, neuroscientists and psychologists have been trying to understand what exactly goes on in the brain when we let our imagination run wild, and what sets limits to it. In a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers now report that people with creative jobs seem to find it easier to overcome mental barriers and come up with unusual ideas. This can be explained in part by the fact that they extend their inner world of imagination to the distant future, unknown places, or a fictional reality by accessing a specific network in the brain: the dorsomedial part of the so-called default mode network.

This network includes several interconnected brain regions, including the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, the angular gyrus, and the hippocampus. They interact with each other when we daydream, randomly remember something, or detect unfamiliar intentions. Some studies suggest that they also play a role in visions of the future.

According to these studies, certain circuits in the default-mode network may help us draw on our experiences when imagining unfamiliar but obvious situations. For example, we remember the décor and smells of a familiar café when we consider trying a new café in the same city. But for creative people, other circuits in the default mode network are involved as soon as they are asked to imagine scenarios far from anything familiar that cannot be easily reassembled from experiences associated with them. Novelists, for example, "imagine another person's perspective in a setting that is not part of their own immediate reality," says Meghan Meyer, assistant professor of psychology and brain research at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and lead author of the study.

When it came to imagining a distant future, the default mode network only stirred in creative people

To find out how people with creative jobs can form such vivid images of a distant or fictional reality, Meyer and her colleagues conducted three experiments. First, they asked 300 randomly selected subjects to imagine one of the following scenarios: the Earth in 500 years, life as an angry dictator, or a world consisting of only one continent. In addition, they were asked to think of as many ways as possible to use a pen or advance a megaphone. A good mark for imaginative power was awarded to those who showed particular creativity in these tasks.

The team then repeated its tests with 100 other subjects who had received awards for creativity in writing, visual arts, acting, or directing. The same tasks were completed by subjects who were professionally successful in finance, law, or medicine. However, the creative people outperformed them in how vividly they were able to present the situations in writing and, according to their own statements, also imagine them in their mind's eye.

Meyer and her team wondered if people in creative professions simply had stronger "imagination muscles," just as professional baseball players have a more robust throwing arm than non-athletes. To observe any muscles, they recorded the brain activity of 27 creative people and 26 control subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging. The neural activity of the occupational groups looked similar when they were asked merely to imagine the next 24 hours. But when it came to imagining events in the further future, the dorsomedial default mode network excited in the creative group, but not in the control group. And even when they were resting, i.e., not doing any tasks, the network was more active in the creative group than in the other occupational groups.

"For understanding the creative brain, this is a major advance, the results shed light on how the brain can imagine different situations and what makes creatives so special at imagining a reality far from their own."

(Roger Beaty, psychologist)

The results also reveal something about the way we conceive of others. The dorsomedial default mode network is apparently involved when we think about perspectives that are markedly different from our own experience. So it might also make people better able to empathize with others and assess how, say, future generations will judge today's policies, says Harvard University psychologist Daniel Schacter, who also was not involved in Meyer and her colleagues' experiments. The next big question, he says, is whether activation of the dorsomedial default mode network can be trained. If so, painting classes or other creative activities could stimulate the imagination and help us all understand each other better.


About the Creator


I’m a young creative writer and artist from Germany who has a fable for anything strange or odd.^^

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