In a new study, Brigham Young University researchers explore where and how imagination happens in the brain.
Graduate student researcher Stefania Ashby and her faculty mentor developed a methodology that incorporated magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology in a series of experiments that helped them distinguish pure imagination from related processes like remembering.
“I was thinking a lot about planning for my own future and imagining myself in the future, and I started wondering how memory and imagination work together,” Ashby said.
“I wondered if they were separate or if imagination is just taking past memories and combining them in different ways to form something I’ve never experienced before.”
Scientists have often debated whether memory and imagination truly are distinct processes. So Ashby and her faculty mentor devised MRI experiments to put it to the test.
They asked study participants to provide 60 personal photographs for the “remember” section of the experiment.
Participants also filled out a questionnaire beforehand to determine which scenarios would be unfamiliar to them and thus a better fit for the “imagine” section.
The researchers then showed people their own photographs during an MRI session to elicit brain activity that is strictly memory-based. A statistical analysis revealed distinctive patterns for memory and imagination.
“We were able to see the distinctions even in those small regions of the hippocampus,” Ashby said. “It’s really neat that we can see the difference between those two tasks in that small of a brain region.”
The study has been published in the journal Cognitive Neuroscience.