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Imaging Imagination
(Released 1998)

 
  by Frederic A. Spangler, Ph.D.  
Glossary Contact
 
Overview

There is an exciting revolution taking place. Two traditionally separate branches of biomedicine are rapidly closing in on each other. Neuroscience (or Brain Science) and Psychology (or Cognitive Science) are converging to answer the age-old question:

"Is the physical brain the same as the metaphysical mind?"

These two fields of science have long been tied together only in the weakest of ways, but the bonds have grown much stronger in recent years. Now major aspects of the two fields actually overlap, so much so that they may soon become almost indistinguishable one from the other. This convergence is like a comet on a collision course with Earth, but with portents of grand rather than cataclysmic results.

What has precipitated all this excitement? Neuroimaging--the non-invasive, computer-assisted technology used to explore the spatial and temporal organization of the brain's neural systems. PET, fMRI, ERP, EEG, MEG and other imaging techniques are leading the charge. In the past, neuroimaging was almost exclusively the domain of clinical neurology. These techniques were and still are used to diagnose the "abnormal" brain for cerebral stroke, anatomical anomalies, and tumors.

Imaging technology is advancing at a dizzying pace. Newer "real time" imaging allows researchers to move beyond the more "static" imaging used in diagnosis. Today, neuroimaging is also being used to define the "normal" brain. The concept is simple. A subject performs an action and that action is mapped through neuroimaging to one or several specific sites in the brain. These actions can be physical in nature such as the movement of a finger.

Or these actions can be mental. Enter all the excitement! Concepts relating to mind and consciousness can now be mapped to precise areas of the brain. These include such varied activities as pondering a next chess move, performing arithmetic "in your head," reading a book, listening to music, and imagining a face.1

Several research groups have elucidated brain mechanisms underlying consciousness in vision, working memory, and mental imagery.2,3 Cohen et al.4 reported in a recent issue of Nature on the use of fMRI to examine brain activation in human subjects who were performing a working memory task.

Also reported in Nature, Engel et al.5 used fMRI to investigate responses of the human visual cortex to a variety of colors. It is hoped that recent and projected advancements in imaging technology will provide an even clearer view of the living, functioning human brain.6

As long-suspected, the brain is proving to be the physical housing and neuronal architecture underlying and propelling what we call the mind. The traditional duality principle--mind and brain are two separate entities and never the twain shall meet--is fast disappearing. The notions of brain and mind are approaching unity. It just depends from what vantage point one is exploring the mind-brain complex.

This "it looks like two but is really one" scenario is not unique in the realm of science. There is an analogous counterpart in modern physics. Depending on how it is viewed, electromagnetic radiation has two seemingly incompatible aspects--wave and particle forms--but is, in fact, a single entity.

What lies just around the corner for Neuroscience and Psychology? Will we soon be able to image imagination, genius, creativity? Can you imagine monitoring the mind-brain of a 21st Century Einstein contemplating the universe, a Caruso performing an aria, a Shelley creating a poem, a Dante writing a book, a Horowitz playing the piano, or a Renoir painting a portrait? The possibilities are mind-boggling!

Notes

Glossary

Editor

Frederic A. Spangler, Ph.D.

  • CSA Senior Science and Internet Editor and Web Resources Manager

  • B.S. (Biology; minor concentrations in Mathematics, Biophysics, and Earth Sciences), Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania

  • Ph.D. (Physiology and Biophysics; thesis research area: Biochemical Endocrinology; minor fields of study: Neurobiology, Pharmacology), The Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, DC

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