What Do You See?

Abigail Kendal (‘22)

We have all heard it before. Imagery. Symbolism. Visualization. Typically we associate these words with our literature classes and timed writing assignments, however, scientists are beginning to associate these common phrases with more recent findings. In essence, a study conducted at the University of New South Wales proved why some people can easily visualize mental images while others cannot. 

Dr. Rebecca Keogh noted that the ability to picture vivid images within one’s mind is not due to a wandering imagination or strong sense of creativity, rather, there are strong neurological connections that occur within the brain as we visualize various sights. In fact, this study contrasted the roles of two distinct regions of the brain: the prefrontal and visual cortex. The role of the prefrontal cortex is to manage emotions, planning, and attention, in comparison to the visual cortex which coordinates information about static and moving objects in addition to the recognition of patterns and shapes. Within this study, researchers found that highly excitable neurons in the prefrontal cortex and less excitable ones within the visual cortex lead to more vivid and clear mental images. This research may seem counterintuitive, but Dr. Keogh explained this phenomenon in terms of writing on a chalkboard. “Drawing a picture on a dusty [more excitable] chalkboard would make it hard to see, but if you draw on a cleaner [less excitable] chalkboard, the picture will be clearer.” She notes that this research may contradict past thoughts on the role of the visual cortex in the process of imagination and visualization. However, her research has uncovered the answers to a scientific mystery which has existed since the time that Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, discovered the disparity in mental imagery in 1883. Furthermore, Professor Joel Pearson notes that this small piece of information “holds the key to unlocking our understanding of how we think, feel, remember and make decisions” and this single study is a monumental step to discovering the entire mystery of the human mind itself. 

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