How The Brain Processes Imagination And Reality Differently

“Dreaming is not merely an act of communication; it is also an aesthetic activity, a game of the imagination, a game that is a value in itself.” —Milan Kundera, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”

In A Nutshell

The brain has long been one of science’s great mysteries, and with the improvement of technology, we’re slowly unlocking that mystery piece by piece. When researchers looked at the difference between how the brain processes real information and imaginary thoughts and images, they found that the pathway of information is reversed. Just where the imaginary information originates from isn’t known yet, but being able to trace the way visual information is processed against how ideas are created is the first step in understanding things like dreams and the creative process.

The Whole Bushel

For most of us (and for most of the time), what’s real and what’s imaginary is pretty obvious. We might spend an entire afternoon daydreaming about that mansion we’re going to own someday, the vacation we might just decide to stay on forever, or that yacht we’ll use to flee the civilized world, but at the end of the day, we know we’re back at our desks and now probably behind on our work.

It turns out that reality and imagination aren’t just two opposite ends of what’s going on in our minds. Instead, they’re quite literally going through our heads in the opposite direction.

According to a study that ultimately ran in the neuroscience journal NeuroImage, the brain processes information in a completely different way depending on whether it’s real or you’re imagining it.

Take something real, like the computer or smartphone that’s undoubtedly in front of you right now. The information you’re receiving from it is registered as visual information, taken up into the occipital lobe in the brain, and then into the parietal lobe.

And what about that yacht or the eternal vacation? That information flows through the brain in the complete opposite direction, with the signal seeming to originate in the parietal lobe and then traveling to the occipital lobe. The parietal lobe itself is associated with a whole host of functions, including the ability to recognize and recall textures and forms, and the creation of spatial relationships that allow you to track the movement of objects and anticipate trajectories. It’s also activated with the need to perform calculations and for body awareness within the environment or a certain space.

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Establishing how real and imagined information flows through the brain has allowed researchers to add something else to the list of the parietal lobe’s duties: the creation of concepts. According to the study, the apparent origin of imaginary information means that the parietal lobe is where we create and assemble all the building blocks that we need for creative thinking and developing solutions to problems we haven’t encountered before.

And our brain does this more than we think, it seems. The workings of image processing in the brain has been a long-standing mystery. New information has allowed researchers to trace how images and signals flow through the brain and has given scientists some sound theories. Now, they think that rather than images being stored in our brains somewhere, they’re constructed from the bits and pieces that are just sort of lying around.

But they’re also still not sure if that’s where imagination starts. Filtering out all the brain noise and isolating the processes that form our imagination is a daunting task, and it’s one that the study admits there might be more to. Imagination plays a bigger role in our lives than just daydreaming about an escape, too. Some think it’s what allows us to form memories, develop our decision-making process, and even provide the basis for our abilities in language.

Show Me The Proof

Psychology Today: Imagination and Reality Flow Conversely Through Your Brain
Discovery News: Imagination, Reality Look Different in the Brain
Scientific American: The Real Neuroscience of Creativity
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Mental Imagery
MSD Manual: Overview of Cerebral Function