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Researchers Find Mental Workspace in Brain that Helps Humans Imagine

Sep 17, 2013 08:27 AM EDT

Researchers have now found the elusive "mental workspace", which allows humans to imagine and think creatively. The study might help advance artificial intelligence.

The ability to imagine, to come up with creative ways to solve a problem helped humans create tools, great works of art and music. However, how humans think out of the box has always been a mystery. Many scholars theorize that the brain has a "mental workspace" where it manipulates images, sounds and ideas that help us find novel ways to solve problems.

Now, Researchers at the University of Dartmouth have found a neural network that resembles the scholars' idea of a work space in the brain where ideas take shape.

Creative thinking can be of different forms such as imagining new visuals, sounds or coming up with new ideas. In this study, researchers looked at how brains manipulate images. For example, imagine an elephant with the head of a turkey climbing up a building in New York City. A creature like that doesn't exist and elephants certainly can't climb buildings. However, the brain can manipulate different images and morph them into a single image and make it appear in our mind's eye.

The study was based on 15 people who were hooked on to an MRI scanner that detected the activity in their brains as they worked on a task that required creative thinking. Participants in the study were asked to imagine abstract shapes and to either combine or dismantle the imaginary shapes.

The scientists found a large cortical and subcortical network that was helping the brain manipulate various images, according to a news release.

"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," said Alex Schlegel, a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and lead author of the study.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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