Science has now pinpointed the neurological chassis of the human imagination, the ineffable quality allowing us to organize thoughts and experiences into the potential for something new — and the way in which man most resembles the mythological creator.

Researchers at Dartmouth University say the imagination, the “brain’s workspace,” spans widely across a neural network that consciously manipulates images, symbols, ideas, and other abstractions to allow humans to solve complex problems in the external world.

"Our findings move us closer to understanding how the organization of our brains sets us apart from other species and provides such a rich internal playground for us to think freely and creatively," lead investigator Alex Schlegel , a graduate student in Dartmouth’s department of psychological and brain sciences, told reporters. "Understanding these differences will give us insight into where human creativity comes from and possibly allow us to recreate those same creative processes in machines."

Scientists and other thinkers had theorized that imagination must constitute a widespread neural network in the brain but, to date, evidence for such a “mental workspace” has been nearly impossible to produce with contemporary brain scanning tools, which examine the organ’s activity in isolation. The investigators began by with an essential inquiry: How does the brain allow its user to manipulate mental imagery? They wondered how the “mind’s eye” could possibly conjure images—the sight of a Lilliputian dancing on the head of a pin, for example—from nothing.

In the study, Schlegel and his colleague asked 15 participants to imagine visual shapes and then to combine them into new, more complex figures, or to mentally sunder them into separate parts. The researchers then measured the brain activity of the participants via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), finding a cortical and subcortical network spanning a large portion of the brain.

This network, they concluded, closely resembled the long-theorized “mental workspace” imagined by scholars to exist within the brain, evolving over eons, from something or nothing.

Source: Schlegel, Alex. Network Structure And Dynamics Of The Mental Workspace. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences. 2013.