Exploring the Mind’s Eye: Q&A with Neuroscientist Andrey Vyshedskiy

May 28th, 2014

andreyDo you ever stop to think about what is happening when you imagine something? Or when you picture something perfectly in your mind’s eye? The process of creating images or thoughts in our head the way we have never actually experienced physically is both fascinating and perplexing.

Andrey Vyshedskiy, neuroscientist and adjunct professor at Boston University’s Metropolitan College, explores these concepts in the second edition of On the Origin of the Human MindIn his book, Professor Vyshedskiy examines the origins of the human mind from a scientific and neurological perspective and offers various tests and theories about how the mind works. In the following Q&A with Professor Voices, Professor Vyshedskiy offers some insight about the concept of mental synthesis in particular.

Professor Voices: What is mental synthesis?

Andrey Vyshedskiy: Consider the puzzle below. Can you find the patch that completes the image?

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Your success in solving this and similar puzzles depends on your ability to mentally synthesize two objects that you have never seen together before. The neurological mechanism that allows you to envision the solution to the puzzle is the same one that allows you to actively imagine any novel object or scene, and is thus at the core of human imagination and creativity. To distinguish this active type of imagination from other aspects of mental imagery such as simple memory recall, dreaming, hallucinations, and spontaneous insight, we call it mental synthesis.

PV: What are some things that we think about every day that show mental synthesis at work?

AV: Mental synthesis permeates through just about every aspect of human behavior and is an integral part of many of our everyday tasks. When we speak we use mental synthesis to communicate a novel image; “my house is the second one on the left, just across the road from the red gate,” and we rely on the listener to use mental synthesis to make sense of our words and follow our instructions. When we tell stories, we are often describing things that the listener has never seen before; “that creature has three heads, two tails and can run faster than a cheetah,” and we rely on the listener to imagine the story in their mind’s eye. When we teach, we do so actively, using language; “imagine you have five cookies. You eat two of them. How many do you have left?” And we rely on the student’s ability to use mental synthesis to mentally simulate the instructions, construct  a new mental image, and arrive at an answer.

PV: What role does language play in mental synthesis?

AV: Research on early brain development shows that the development of mental synthesis depends on the timely acquisition of syntactic speech during childhood. Children talk with themselves and others and in the process create an infinite number of novel mental images in their brain. The active use of syntactic language during childhood likely naturally leads to the development of synchronous neural connections between the prefrontal cortex and the posterior cortex. It is the synchronous connections that seem to be essential for mental synthesis. Children not involved in syntactic communication during the sensitive period of language development often find it challenging to intentionally create and test new scenarios in their mind.

PV: What is the current status of research on mental synthesis? Do you believe enough attention is being paid to the phenomenon in the neuroscience world?

AV: Numerous scientists and philosophers have noticed that humans are significantly more imaginative and creative than animals. Lev Vygotsky, a pioneering psychologist of early 20th century claims, “Imagination is a new formation that is not present in the consciousness of the very young child, is totally absent in animals, and represents a specifically human form of conscious activity.” Ian Tattersall, the eminent paleoanthropologist and curator at the American Museum of Natural History writes, “… if there is one single thing that distinguishes humans from other life-forms, living or extinct, it is the capacity for symbolic thought: the ability to generate complex mental symbols and to manipulate them into new combinations. This is the very foundation of imagination and creativity: of the unique ability of humans to create a world in the mind…” In neuroscience circles, however, studying or even discussing imagination is much less popular. Owing to the subjective nature of the process, imagination is difficult to study in a precise way using neurological techniques. Researchers rarely enter a live human brain with electrodes except in special cases such as during epilepsy treatment. The usual scientific backup — animal subjects — are ill-suited for studying the mechanism of a uniquely human phenomenon. As a result, mental synthesis and simple memory recall remained bound together under the title of mental imagery; mental synthesis has never made a separate entry into the realm of neuroscience. I am trying to change that.

PV: Do you believe mental synthesis in humans has reached a plateau? Or do you see it continuing to evolve over time?

AV: Improving early education has a great potential to advance mental synthesis in most children. As I mentioned above, the development of the mechanism responsible for mental synthesis seems to have a critical period after which further development is impossible. This is not unusual for a neurological system. There is no doubt that neural plasticity in many systems is enhanced during specific windows of opportunity early on in childhood and diminishes greatly at the end of the critical period. Critical periods have been found to exist in virtually all species, from humans to Drosophila. For example, in mammals, artificial closure of one eye for the duration of the critical period causes a permanent loss of vision through that eye. Loss of vision occurs despite there being no damage to the sensory receptors in the eye, the thalamus, or the cerebral cortex. Remarkably, the simple act of covering an eye can profoundly alter the physical structure of the brain. Of course the biggest difference between normal development of vision through an eye and the acquisition of mental synthesis is that light reflected from surrounding objects reaches the retina naturally whenever it is light. However, the development of mental synthesis requires a community of humans willing to engage a child with the use of a syntactic language. Only exposure to a syntactic language seems to provide the adequate input for the development of mental synthesis. Furthermore, the exposure to a syntactic language has to occur during the period of neural plasticity, which expires shortly before puberty. As puberty can occur at an early age, it is important to insure that children are engaged in conversations as early as possible.

A free electronic version of On The Origin Of The Human Mind, 2nd edition is available here.

For more on Vyshedskiy, visit his website.

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