Imagine waking up on Christmas day to discover that Santa has been and delivered everything you want; imagine the perfect holiday or winning the lottery. No matter how hard you try, new research suggests that the mental processing involved will be completely different than that which would have occurred had you really experienced your fantasies. The research, carried out by Van Veen, Giulio Tononi, Daniela Dentico and collaborators from the University of Liege in Belgium, has shown that the information-processing paths taken by imagination and reality in the brain are opposite.
The team fitted two groups of people with a device reading electrical activity along the scalp using technology known as electroencephalography or EEG. The first group watched short video clips and were then asked to replay them in their head, whilst the second group were told to imagine riding a magical bike before watching a series of videos of silent nature scenes.
For the first activity in each group, the imagination element, the researchers found visual information travelled to the brain’s occipital lobe, which handles most incoming visual stimuli, and got transferred “up” to the parietal lobe, where higher-order functions take place. On the other hand, in the second activity, the real element, the flow travelled in the opposite direction. Information travelled from the parietal lobe down to the occipital lobe, as complex mental images got reorganized as concrete pictures.
This research should help to enhance neuroscientists’ understanding of the functional relationship between the two lobes. The researchers expressed their intention to use their findings to explore the formation of short term memories and the mental processes involved in dreaming.