How Does Imagination Occur in the Brain?


imaginationImagination is a somewhat abstract concept. This is something that some people seem to have in spades and that others seem to lack entirely. It’s hard to put a finger on precisely what imagination is, but what we do know is that it is desirable and can help you to enjoy yourself in your everyday life. People with good imaginations are unpredictable, creative, and exciting to be around. Whereas people with no imagination tend to be thought of as ‘dull’.

The reality, of course, is that we all have imaginations. The only real difference is the way in which we use them and how much we choose to cultivate them. So, what precisely is going on inside that old skull of yours when you do opt to put your imagination to work, and how can you get more out of it?

The Neuroscience of Creativity

As a general rule, it’s thought that creativity is the result of finding connections between disparate ideas. That is to say that there’s really no such thing as a completely original idea but, rather, that our biggest breakthroughs come from combining existing ideas into something new. This is easiest to do when we are not stressed. When you are stressed or focused, you tend to focus only on one thing very precisely. When you relax, on the other hand, this helps your brain to explore the more widespread connections of your neurons and synapses: your ‘connectome’. When your mind is allowed to wander, that’s when you get new ideas.


At the same time, imagination also comes from visualization. As you imagine a new story, a new character, or a new scenario, this will tend to involve picturing it in your mind’s eye. Recent research now tells us that this occurs in a brain region called the ‘posterior parietal cortex’. This part of the brain is crucial, not only for coming up with new ideas and visualizing them, but also for helping us to plan movements before we take action and to relive memories as part of our ‘declarative memory’. In other words, this crucial part of our brain is what enables us to reason abstractly and to plan, predict, and remember. This is an absolutely fundamental tool, which gives you even more reason to stretch those imaginative muscles! It also means that doing anything that involves thinking ahead or anticipating outcomes, such as playing a sport, could, theoretically, help your imagination!