This key ability helps us become human, but we still don’t fully understand it.
Imagination involves creating a mental image of something that doesn’t exist, or even something that can’t even be in reality. In simple words, we can easily imagine riding a bike through the sky, although this will never happen, writes Inverse.
Scientists believe that imagination is one of the key abilities that make us human. However, where it came from, how it developed and what evolutionary path it took is still not entirely clear.
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Shedding light on how imagination began was decided by Andrey Vyshedsky, a neuroscientist at Boston University who studies how children acquire imagination. The scientist notes that he is most interested in neurological mechanisms – the structures and connections of the brain, which are necessary for the mental construction of new objects and scenes. The researcher believes that by studying these questions we will be able to shed light on how the imagination appeared and what path of development it went through.
From bacteria to mammals
Life on Earth arose about 3.4 billion years ago. Organisms gradually became more complex, until about 700 million years ago neurons organized themselves into simple neural connections, and then developed into the brain and spinal cord about 525 million years ago.
Dinosaurs appeared about 240 million years ago, and mammals appeared a few million years later. The latter had to share territory with powerful predators, which was not so easy. However, dinosaurs were cold-blooded, which means they could not hunt effectively at night – in order to survive, mammals had to reconsider their behavior.
Mammals moved underground and surfaced at night, but this lifestyle required them to maintain a body temperature of 37 degrees Celsius, which means that in order to survive, they needed more food per unit of weight than dinosaurs.
The researchers believe that mammals have developed a new system for efficiently remembering the places where they found food. Essentially, they connected the part of the brain that records the features of the landscape with the part of the brain that controls navigation. Landscape features were coded in the neocortex, the outermost layer of the brain, and navigation was coded in the entorhinal cortex. At the same time, the entire system was interconnected by a brain structure, the hippocampus. Note that modern people, in fact, still use this system to remember objects and past events.
Neuroscientists believe that all mammals are able to recall and relive past experiences—remembering encoded objects or events by reactivating groups of neurons. In fact, this system, which developed 200 million years ago, became the first step towards the emergence of imagination.
The next stage in the emergence of the imagination was the ability to create “memories” that actually never existed. Note that the simplest form of imagining new objects and scenes occurs during sleep; in humans, such fantasies are associated with REM sleep.
Scientists suggest that other species, in which rest also includes periods of REM sleep, are also able to dream, and therefore imagine. The researchers believe that the stage ability evolved in marsupials and placental mammals about 140 million years ago, when they followed a different evolutionary path than egg-laying mammals.
Research shows that animals, for example, can imagine visiting places they have never seen before. At the same time, in humans, the solutions found in dreams can solve some real problems.
Imagination by appointment
To understand the difference between voluntary and involuntary imagination, it suffices to imagine muscle spasm and voluntary muscle control, the former being uncontrollable, while the latter allowing for the combination of muscle movements.
The same thing happens with the imagination. Arbitrary – helps to consciously combine thoughts, visualizing a certain process or action, involuntary – what happens in a dream, imagination, which we are not able to control.
The ability to combine and recombine mental objects is called prefrontal synthesis and it developed about 70,000 years ago. Historian Yuval Harari believes that this “cognitive revolution” associated with prefrontal synthesis occurred about 65 thousand years ago, as evidenced by several types of archaeological artifacts found in different parts of the globe.
Thus, according to the neuroscientist, our species has gone through millions of years of evolution in order to acquire imagination, thereby learning to imagine something that does not actually exist and that did not happen involuntarily during REM sleep.
Earlier Focus wrote that scientists told why some people are not able to fantasize.
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