The Power of Imagination

Theodore (Ted) Stark
May 20 · 2 min read

We use previous experiences as the basis to shape attitudes, behaviors, and decisions. What about experiences we simply imagine? Could these imagined interactions with others alter our attitudes? This is the question researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive & Brain Science and Harvard University sought to explore.

In their study, recently published in the journal Nature Communications, the research participants were asked to name individuals that they liked and also those they do not like at all. Participants were also asked to identify locations they liked, disliked, or were neutral on. Participants then were placed in a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanner and asked to vividly imagine interacting the individuals as well as the neutral locations while their brain activity was monitored. In this initial phase, no associations between individuals and locations were made. In the second phase, however, neutral locations were randomly paired with liked and disliked individuals and participants were asked to imagine interacting both with the individual in the location. After the fMRI scan, participants were once again asked to evaluate the locations and assign a rating of positive, negative, or neutral.

The findings reveal that imagining an experience with an individual, especially when it was a liked individual, can impact the participant’s attitude toward a previously neutral location. Simply imagining interacting with a liked individual can transfer the emotional value of the person to the location. These findings were first observed in a study conducted in Cambridge, MA. The findings were replicated in a subsequent study conducted in Leipzig, Germany.

These data suggest an interesting commentary on the human ability to experience hypothetical events through imagination. There are implications as to how we learn, how we potentially augment future-orientated decisions, and how we avoid risk. Perhaps we cannot do anything we put our mind to. However, as this study suggests, our imaginations can alter our attitudes and how we see the world.

This was Article 116 from the Studio Quick Facts Series.


Benoit, R. G., Paulus, P., & Schacter, D. L. (2019). Forming attitudes via neural activity supporting affective episodic simulations. Nature Communications.

Max Planck Institute. (2019, May 19). ‘Imagine…’ Our attitudes can change solely by the power of imagination. Retrieved May 20, 2019 from

Schacter, D. L., & Addis, D. R. (2007). The cognitive neuroscience of constructive memory: remembering the past and imagining the future. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 362(1481), 773–786.

Schacter, D. L., Benoit, R. G., & Szpunar, K. K. (2017). Episodic future thinking: Mechanisms and functions. Current opinion in behavioral sciences, 17, 41–50.

Suddendorf, T., & Corballis, M. C. (2007). The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel, and is it unique to humans?. Behavioral and brain sciences, 30(3), 299–313.

Studio Quick Facts

The bi-weekly series focused on the science behind how humans interact with technology.

Theodore (Ted) Stark

Written by

Empirically minded User Experience professional with a bias towards the science that informs human-computer interaction.

Studio Quick Facts

The bi-weekly series focused on the science behind how humans interact with technology.

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