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What's The Difference Between Imagination And Reality In The Brain?

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When it comes to imagination vs. reality, the processes in the brain are different. But just how different are they?

That's a question that a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently decided to figure out.

The answer? The differences lie with how information flows through the brain. And it turns out that imagination and reality flow in opposite directions from each other.

"A really important problem in brain research is understanding how different parts of the brain are functionally connected. What areas are interacting? What is the direction of communication?" says UW-Madison university professor Barry Van Veen. "We know that the brain does not function as a set of independent areas, but as a network of specialized areas that collaborate."

The researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) for studying brain electrical activity in volunteers. However, because EEG picks up a great deal of brain activity and because the brain is always on, they asked their volunteers to watch video clips so the EEG picked up activity in specific circuits inside the brain. After watching the clips, volunteers replayed the action from the videos in their brains.

Other volunteers hooked up to EEG imagined traveling on a magic bicycle, focusing on as many details as possible. Those volunteers then watched videos of quiet nature scenes.

By using an algorithm for determining how information flows through neural circuits in the brain, researchers found their answer. When using their imaginations, volunteers had an increase in the flow of information from the brain's parietal lobe to their occipital lobe. When viewing video, that information flowed in the opposite direction: from the occipital lobe to the parietal lobe.

"There seems to be a lot in our brains and animal brains that is directional, that neural signals move in a particular direction, then stop, and start somewhere else," says Van Veen. "I think this is really a new theme that had not been explored."

This research could explain why even children can separate between reality and imagination, even though they use their imaginations more often than adults.

The research team hopes that this study helps them develop tools that could reveal what happens in the brain when we sleep and dream, as well as how brains encode and store short-term memories. This research could also be valuable in studying those with mental illnesses, particularly in patients with paranoid delusions and others who may have problems separating imagination from reality.

[Photo Credit: Mary Margret/Flickr]

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