1
How can I determine if another individual is imagining something?

There is extensive debate about whether non-humans can imagine themselves in the past or future or in someone else's shoes. Most evidence of such abilities comes from studies of their behavior. We must examine the brain and behavior at the same time to get a clearer idea about whether they actually are using imagination. However, it still leaves the question: where is imagination in the brain and how can we tell if another individual is imagining something?

waiting for moderation
1 Answer
1
Accepted answer

Hello Corina,

I know little of this (intriguing) subject so this is more a series of questions than an answer.

First, what is the role of the 'image' in imagination? I think it must be central. (Though maybe not essential; concepts like 'I'm hungry' don't seem to require it, though you could argue that's just thinking not imagining - although 'will I be hungry this afternoon if I don't eat now?' is potentially more like imagination and still doesn't seem to require an image).

Anyway, if the image is central then functional MRI of an animal's visual cortex while the animal is 'imagining' something could be revealing. My proposed way of doing that would be during a dream, as I'd define a dream to be an unconscious imagination or conversely an imagination to be a conscious, directed dream.

I expect all sentient animals do, or at least might, dream: dogs really do look like they're chasing cats, or running through some experience, in their sleep.

So could you examine a dog in sleep with fMRI? It seems feasible, as long as the dog is comfortable with it.

Regards,

David

waiting for moderation
1

Hi David,

Thanks for your answer! I agree that the question of "what is imagination" is a big one and has yet to be very clearly defined. I think of imagination as mental representations, but what are those really? We use the terms often, but they are quite amorphous.

People (including Gregory Berns) have trained dogs to hold still in an fMRI machine so this seems a promising way forward for the species that can be trained to do this (see a popular science article. There is also work (by people including Hugo Spiers) on rats where, after doing meticulous navigation studies involving sequences of individual neurons in the hippocampus (place cells), they were able to understand what rats were imagining when they were dreaming.

Ideally, I'd like to find out how to measure imagination when an animal is awake to determine if it imagines while performing some of the previous tests that have been done using only behavior. Maybe it's still a bit out of reach...

Thanks again!

Corina

-
waiting for moderation
1

Hi again Corina,

Published in PeerJ yesterday (article 1115) is an interesting fMRI study out of the Berns lab you referred to showing that face recognition in dogs occurs in a specific region of the temporal lobe. Their fMRI methodology seems amenable to examining imagination using the approach outlined in your 2014 Frontiers article - i.e. presenting images as cues to induce imaginations. Perhaps for example you could present to a dog sequential static images of its master—or human companion sounds better—and it's ball to induce an imagination/memory of playing fetch in the park, then compare those MRI patterns with the patterns induced by a video of the dog actually playing fetch in the park. That's probably a naïve example but anyway, something along those lines. (I wonder if a dog would recognise itself in such a video? They do seem to have some concept of self, for example they seem to have the capacity to be embarrassed).

Extending the research to other animals is perhaps a little out of reach. Nothing wrong with shooting for the 'almost possible' though!, as long as you're prepared for some frustration and disappointment. In the not too distant future you'll probably be able to attach some sort of lightweight wireless brain-scanning helmet to your subjects, with simultaneous audio and video recording of incoming external stimuli. All the data you could want!

p.s. I see my earlier concept of monitoring a dog's visual cortex wouldn't work because the vc only handles the front-end sensory processing.

-
waiting for moderation