You would never forget that inconspicuous street corner where you kissed her for the first time. However, according to researchers, our attitudes can be influenced not only by what we actually experience but also by what we imagine.
Roland Benoit and Philipp Paulus from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, together with Daniel Schacter from Harvard University, believe the phenomenon is based on activity in a particular location in the front of our brains -- the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
Participants in the study were first asked to name people that they like very much and also people they don't like at all. In addition, they were asked to provide a list of places that they considered to be neutral. Later, when the participants were lying in the MRI scanner, they were asked to vividly imagine how they would spend time with a much-liked person at one of the neutral places.
After the MRI scanning, the team was able to determine that the attitudes of the participants towards the places had changed: the previously neutral places that had been imagined with liked people were now regarded more positive than at the beginning of the study.
"Merely imagining interacting with a much-liked person at a neutral place can transfer the emotional value of the person to this place. We don't even have to actually experience the episode in reality," Schacter said in a paper published in the journal Nature Communications.
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex plays an important role in this process. This is where information about individual persons and places from our environment is stored. This brain region also evaluates how important individual people and places are for us.
"We propose that this region bundles together representations of our environment by binding together information from the entire brain that form an overall picture," explained Benoit.
The researchers want to better understand the human ability to experience hypothetical events through imagination and how we learn from imagined events much in the same way as from actual experiences. This mechanism can potentially augment future-oriented decisions and also help avoiding risks.
According to Benoit, it will be important to also understand the consequences of negative thoughts.