The Neurobiology of Imagination - Becoming an Innovative Leader

4 min read
21 March 2019

We live in a time when knowledge is literally at our fingertips. Even very young children know how to navigate Google or YouTube to find cartoons or information that interests them. In a world where nearly everyone can access an unlimited amount of information, how can we learn to stay competitive? The edge that truly innovative leaders and organisations have is imagination.

As defined in the Leadership is Upside Down book, imagination is one of the four main pillars of the i4 Neuroleader Model. We define imagination as the process of mentally forming new concepts, ideas, or patterns without involving the senses. In a world where data is readily available, imagination is the new currency as the economy heavily relies on creative ideas and innovative thoughts.1

Neuroscience Helps Us Understand Imagination In The Brain

Neuroimaging is helping to reveal the secrets of how our imagination works. The concept of taking a break to increase creativity has driven considerable research in the past few decades.

One study found that unrelated thoughts (thinking about something besides what you are doing) can stimulate the creative problem-solving process.2

Most creative people stumble upon their tool to increase their imaginability, whether it’s taking a bath or a walk or a drink of bourbon.

Rex Jung, Neuropsychologist

Humans spend about half of their time daydreaming or allowing the mind to wander.3 Scientifically, these are known as stimulus-independent thoughts, meaning your senses aren’t relaying information. A set of brain regions called the default mode network are active during stimulus-free states, but these areas are suppressed when our attention is focused on our surroundings.

Research now suggests that activating the default mode is important for mental processing, including recalling memories, imagining the future, and experiencing social emotions. These associations with brain health support time spent daydreaming and resting the mind.4

The Biggest Buzzword In The Business Is Innovation

It seems there are always buzzwords in business, or words that people like to throw out as if they will magically solve all the problems a corporation faces. In reality, without a true understanding of these buzzwords, the moment passes, and no one tends to learn anything.

Fortunately, it’s exciting to relearn how to use our imagination so we can innovate and come up with new ideas, new products, new services, or imagine ways to improve what we are already doing. Even though many people do not see themselves as imaginative, imagination is happening in their brains, even when they don’t realise it.

Artificial intelligence is also considered a “big thing” on the horizon, but AI and robotic machines, in reality, should be considered tools to help supplement human working conditions. The idea that AI will replace our imaginations is likely never to reach fruition, even though science fiction stories seem to believe so. However, the trillions of connections that make each human brain unique cannot be so easily simplified and merely copied to a machine.  

Preparing Your Brain To Imagine In The Future Of Work

Leaders can no longer claim superior knowledge to ensure that others will follow them because the Internet provides a plethora of information ready to be accessed by anyone. Imagination will be what sets individuals and organisations apart, so it’s time to take a hard look and determine if your workplace is conducive to developing imagination.

To stimulate your imagination:

  • Learn to relax: Create spaces at work that facilitate relaxation. Comfortable seating, quiet areas, and green spaces (inside or outside) will help you and your employees learn to relax. Develop a culture that welcomes the idea that imagining is not only okay, but it’s desirable.
  • Give yourself permission to imagine: Even if you think your thoughts are outlandish or even silly, permit yourself to spend time daydreaming. Some of the most notable people in the world, such as Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton came up with their best ideas when they weren’t actively trying to think of them.
  • Look at problems as mental challenges: We all face issues in life. This fact doesn’t mean that we must despair and feel lost. Instead, look at your problems as mental puzzles to solve. When we retrain the brain to seek out positives instead of dwelling on negatives, we will increase our imagination and see new answers to our problems.

Good health and well-being require a healthy, active brain. Neuroimaging has shown that our brains are not idle when our minds wander. Called “the mental workspace”, this area is active across eleven regions of the brain, helping us to manipulate symbols, images, ideas, and theories.

The understanding that the brain is very active while imagining is critical for companies who want to innovate and be at the forefront of their industry.

When leaders value imagination and understand how it works in the brain, they can apply strategies to enhance people’s ideas, which in turn will impact what the team can produce. To learn more about how to activate your imagination, check out our award-winning leadership development programs and educational documentary!

Read Related Article:
The Biggest Buzzword in Business is “Innovation” - Let’s Dig Deeper!


  1. Damiano S, Cubeiro JC, de Haas T. Leadership is Upside Down: The i4 Neuroleader Revolution. About my Brain Institute. 2014.
  2. Baird B, Smallwood J, Mrazek M, Kam JWY, Franklin MS, Schooler JW. Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation. Psychological Science. 2012;12:1117. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612446024
  3. Poerio GL, Totterdell P, Emerson LM, Miles E. Social Daydreaming and Adjustment: An Experience-Sampling Study of Socio-Emotional Adaptation During a LIfe Transition. Front Psychol. 2016;7:13. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00013
  4. Immordino-Yang MH, Christodoulou JA, Singh V. Rest in Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2012;7(4):352-364. DOI: 10.1177.1745691612447308

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