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The Fine Line Between Mental Imagery and Reality

Researchers from University College London (UCL) have published a study exploring how mental imagery affects the perception of reality. The study involved over 600 participants who were asked to imagine black and white patterns displayed on a computer screen.


Participants were instructed to imagine a stimulus and report how vividly they could visualize it. Subsequently, without the participants' knowledge, a real stimulus matching the imagined features was gradually faded onto the computer screen. Participants were then required to evaluate how vividly they had imagined the stimulus and determine whether what they saw was real or imagined.


The results indicated that the imagined and perceived stimuli became intertwined in the participants' minds. For instance, when a real stimulus was introduced, participants believed that their imaginative abilities became more vivid.


Dr. Nadine Dijkstra, the lead author of the study, commented, "In daily life, we often imagine things that don't exist. Neuroscience has revealed that imagination and perception are based on overlapping brain circuits. We were interested in whether this overlap causes confusion between the two: when the same circuits are involved, how can we be sure of what is real and what is not?"


Using a computer model, the researchers validated their findings and confirmed the theory that people tend to distinguish between reality and imagination based on how vividly they experience something.


Professor Stephen Fleming added, "Normally, imagination is relatively weak, so we don't confuse it. However, if imagination becomes strong or vivid enough, it can be treated as if it were real. In scenarios of the near future where brain stimulation or virtual reality technology becomes new sources of strong sensory signals, our findings suggest that distinguishing between reality and unreality may be even more challenging than we think."


This research provides a new understanding of how imagination influences the perception of reality, suggesting that future technological developments may further challenge individuals' boundaries between reality and imagination.

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