Biology Lecturer Andrey Vyshedskiy Puts Origins, Mechanics of Imagination Under the Microscope

With the ability to picture nearly anything in one’s mind’s eye, it can seem like our understanding of thought and the human mind is only bounded by the limitations of our imagination.

In his Metropolitan College class, Neuroscience of Human Cognition: Imagination, Language, and Consciousness (MET BI 366), Dr. Andrey Vyshedskiy teaches students about the biological underpinnings and mechanics behind how human beings comprehend, conceive, and communicate throughout life.

An expert in childhood cognitive development, the neurological basis of imagination, and evolution of language, Dr. Vyshedskiy has previously made a significant impact in the field for his research into “mental synthesis,” the process by which the brain summons and assembles previously unseen imagery.

In a recent piece for The Conversation, Dr. Vyshedskiy outlined what we know about mental synthesis and the imagination—including its evolutionary origins and distinguishing characteristics in cognitive capabilities compared to other mammals—and offered deeper insights into it functions.

As Vyshedskiy explains, the most important breakthrough in humans developing the ability to imagine came about 200 million years ago, when mammals were fodder for their cold-blooded predators. These cold-blooded hunters sought food during the day, whereas warm-blooded mammals foraged at the safest time—at night, when in order to survive they needed to consume about ten times as much food as their cold-blooded counterparts. To adapt to this vulnerable environment, mammals’ brains developed in sophisticated biological ways that would work in concert to help them memorize and locate food sources: the neocortex, which memorizes the features of given locations; the entorhinal cortex, which controls navigation; and the hippocampus, which synthesized and connected both into a coherent system.

Sixty million years later, many mammals developed the ability to enter deep REM sleep, which led to dreaming—an involuntary means of combination and invention lead to the creation of original concepts. However, as Dr. Vyshedskiy writes, while “[m]ost nonhuman mammals have potential for imagining what doesn’t exist or hasn’t happened involuntarily during REM sleep,” only humans have the capacity to utilize what’s called ‘prefrontal synthesis’ to “voluntarily conjure new objects and events in our minds.”

This capability seemed to mature rapidly about 65–70,000 years ago, when artifact evidence suggests humans began to create materials that demonstrate the ability to imagine things they had not, or could not have, seen—like idols of half-animal, half-human demigods, or bows-and-arrows, musical instruments. It was then, scientists believe, that a “cognitive revolution” began, with these paramount new imaginative abilities spreading far and wide fast, as natural selection rewarded those with advanced capabilities in weaponry and strategy.

As Dr. Vyshedskiy writes:

Most nonhuman mammals have potential for imagining what doesn’t exist or hasn’t happened involuntarily during REM sleep; only humans can voluntarily conjure new objects and events in our minds using prefrontal synthesis.

Students may opt to take Neuroscience of Human Cognition (MET BI 366) as an elective when pursuing their Bachelor of Science in Biology, which can be completed in 24–36 months, at BU MET.


Read more in The Conversation.