The science of imagination

How do your brains create a picture of something we've never seen?

How do your brains create a picture of something we've never seen?

Take a moment to imagine a horse riding a surfboard, wearing a pair of rockin’ boardies, or a duck with a pipe teaching a French class. Oh la la!

The way we can create these images in our minds is a complex process. It seems easy, but that only because we are so used to it.

You probably haven’t seen either of these things, but amazingly when we engage our imaginations we can picture them clearly in an instant. So how do our brains create a picture of something we’ve never seen?

The way we can create these images in our minds is a complex process. It seems easy, but that's only because we are so used to it. To create new and odd images your brain takes familiar pieces and stiches them together to make the new image. It’s like a scrapbook collage made right inside your head!

When you look at any object, thousands of neurons in your posterior cortex fire. They work together to encode an image of the object as a complete neural ensemble. When you think of this object again, this neural ensemble fires and you can picture it clearly.

So when imagining something entirely new (like our surfing horse) the neural ensemble's for a horse and for a surfboard are activated at exactly the same time. The images are fired forward to your prefrontal cortex where they are cobbled together into one new complete image. Once this complex function has taken place, you have a new neural ensemble and can quickly fire up an image of your surfing horse. How handy huh!

This is why novelty images are so effective in advertising. It helps your brand get remembered by creating new neural pathways. For example, if you are shown a Meerkat in a waistcoat, selling you insurance it creates a whole new neural ensemble. So, the next time you think of a Meerkat, guess what’s in the mix?

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