September 21, 2013
Researchers in Dartmouth College believe they have located the area in the brain that facilitates human imagination.
In the brain’s “mental workspace” or neural network, lie the images, symbols, ideas and theories that make up the human imagination.
Funding for this study was provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF) and the Templeton Foundation (TF).
Alex Schlegel, lead author of the study and graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences (DPBS) explains : “Our findings move us closer to understanding how the organization of our brains sets us apart from other species and provides such a rich internal playground for us to think freely and creatively. Understanding these differences will give us insight into where human creativity comes from and possibly allow us to recreate those same creative processes in machines.”
Fifteen participants were given questionnaires inquiring about their thoughts on “precise abstract visual figures and then to mentally blend them into novel, more intricate forms or to mentally disassemble them into their separate parts.”
Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, Schlegel’s team determined that “discovered a cortical and subcortical network over a significant section of the brain was answerable for their imagery moldings. The network looks a lot like the ‘mental workspace’ that researchers have suspected might be responsible for a lot of human conscious experience, as well as the malleable cerebral capacities that humans have developed.”
The fMRI can monitor activity in the brain by observing subtle changes in bloodflow. Activation of the neural network requires more blood flow and delivery of glucose and oxygen.
According to the study: “The conscious manipulation of mental representations is central to many creative and uniquely human abilities. How does the human brain mediate such flexible mental operations? Here, multivariate pattern analysis of functional MRI data reveals a widespread neural network that performs specific mental manipulations on the contents of visual imagery. Evolving patterns of neural activity within this mental workspace track the sequence of informational transformations carried out by these manipulations. The network switches between distinct connectivity profiles as representations are maintained or manipulated.”
Observations found that “both cortical (the outermost layer of neural tissue) and subcortical regions of the brain were accessed during mental manipulation.”
Schlegel postulates that human beings developed advances imaginative processes because they were able to utilize their neural network more efficiently.
With further research, Schlegel hopes that there could be a neurological answer for why some people are creative when others appear not to be.
In May of this year, President Obama devoted $100 million in taxpayer money to fund the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) project.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH); DARPA; and privately funded institutions such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the Kavil Foundation (KF), and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (SIBS) will share in the initial $300 million Obama set aside to kick off the project.
To understand the brain, how it functions, how the neuro-network connects, the NIH has brought together researchers and scientists from the Rockefeller University and Stanford University will assist in creating a human brain blueprint and co-chair the governmental council that oversees the entire project.
Francis S. Collins, director of the NIH said that BRAIN would have “practical applications across a variety of neurological illnesses and injuries: autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s.”
Collins is also interested in how BRAIN will affect the studies into traumatic brain injury (TBI) and prosthetics. The other psychological aspect of the project will fully understand how a “healthy brain functions” and be able to compare that data to unhealthy brains to uncover mental illness and develop more effective treatments.
According to a white paper entitled, “The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics”, BRAIN would facilitate research that would allow wireless applications for the human brain as well as possibly give governmental access to targeting specific populations.
The study states: “This emergent level of understanding could also enable accurate diagnosis and restoration of normal patterns of activity to injured or diseased brains, foster the development of broader biomedical and environmental applications, and even potentially generate a host of associated economic benefits.”
Indeed, the BRAIN project will allow the government and private entities to define mental illness, neuroscience and psychiatric disorders. This will redefine society, families and individuals from predictive measures to treatment in “acute” stages.
BRAIN is expected to include certain initiatives:
• Key investments to jumpstart the effort: The National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation will support approximately $100 million in research beginning in fiscal year 2014.
• Strong academic leadership: The NIH will establish a high-level working group co-chaired by Dr. Cornelia “Cori” Bargmann of The Rockefeller University and Dr. William Newsome of Stanford University, to define detailed scientific goals for the NIH’s investment, and to develop a multi-year scientific plan for achieving these goals, including timetables, milestones and cost estimates.
• Public-private partnerships: Federal research agencies will partner with companies, foundations and private research institutions that are also investing in relevant neuroscience research, such as the Allen Institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
• Maintaining our highest ethical standards: Pioneering research often has the potential to raise new ethical challenges. To ensure that this new effort proceeds in ways that continue to adhere to our highest standards of research protections, the president will direct his Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to explore all ethical, legal and societal implications raised by this research initiative and other recent advances in neuroscience.