Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Those aren’t just lyrics from the Queen song “Bohemian Rhapsody.” They’re also the questions that the brain must constantly answer while processing streams of visual signals from the eyes and purely mental pictures bubbling out of the imagination. Brain scan studies have repeatedly found that seeing something and imagining it evoke highly similar patterns of neural activity. Yet for most of us, the subjective experiences they produce are very different.

“I can look outside my window right now, and if I want to, I can imagine a unicorn walking down the street,” said Thomas Naselaris, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota. The street would seem real and the unicorn would not. “It’s very clear to me,” he said. The knowledge that unicorns are mythical barely plays into that: A simple imaginary white horse would seem just as unreal.

So “why are we not constantly hallucinating?” asked Nadine Dijkstra, a postdoctoral fellow at University College London. A study she led, recently published in Nature Communications, provides an intriguing answer: The brain evaluates the images it is processing against a “reality threshold.” If the signal passes the threshold, the brain thinks it’s real; if it doesn’t, the brain thinks it’s imagined.

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