Mental image

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A mental image or mental picture is an experience that, on most occasions, significantly resembles the experience of perceiving some object, event, or scene, but occurs when the relevant object, event, or scene is not actually present to the senses. [1] [2] [3] [4] There are sometimes episodes, particularly on falling asleep (hypnagogic imagery) and waking up (hypnopompic), when the mental imagery, being of a rapid, phantasmagoric and involuntary character, defies perception, presenting a kaleidoscopic field, in which no distinct object can be discerned. [5] Mental imagery can sometimes produce the same effects as would be produced by the behavior or experience imagined. [6]

Hypnagogia, also referred to as "hypnagogic hallucinations", is the experience of the transitional state from wakefulness to sleep: the hypnagogic state of consciousness, during the onset of sleep. Mental phenomena that may occur during this "threshold consciousness" phase include hallucinations, lucid thought, lucid dreaming, and sleep paralysis. The latter two phenomena are themselves separate sleep conditions that are sometimes experienced during the hypnagogic state.

The hypnopompic state is the state of consciousness leading out of sleep, a term coined by the psychical researcher Frederic Myers. Its mirror is the hypnagogic state at sleep onset; though often conflated, the two states are not identical. The hypnagogic state is rational waking cognition trying to make sense of non-linear images and associations; the hypnopompic state is emotional and credulous dreaming cognition trying to make sense of real world stolidity. They have a different phenomenological character. Depressed frontal lobe function in the first few minutes after waking – known as "sleep inertia" – causes slowed reaction time and impaired short-term memory. Sleepers often wake confused, or speak without making sense, a phenomenon the psychologist Peter McKeller calls "hypnopompic speech". When the awakening occurs out of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, in which most dreams occur, the hypnopompic state is sometimes accompanied by lingering vivid imagery. Some of the creative insights attributed to dreams actually happen in this moment of awakening from REM. In Deirdre Barrett's The Committee of Sleep, Margie Profet's McArthur Award-winning biology experiment is shown to be one of these.


The nature of these experiences, what makes them possible, and their function (if any) have long been subjects of research and controversy[ further explanation needed ] in philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, and, more recently, neuroscience. As contemporary researchers[ Like whom? ] use the expression, mental images or imagery can comprise information from any source of sensory input; one may experience auditory images, [7] olfactory images, [8] and so forth. However, the majority of philosophical and scientific investigations of the topic focus upon visual mental imagery. It has sometimes been assumed[ by whom? ] that, like humans, some types of animals are capable of experiencing mental images. [9] Due to the fundamentally introspective nature of the phenomenon, there is little to no evidence either for or against this view.

Philosophy Study of general and fundamental questions

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras. Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it? What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust? Do humans have free will?

Psychology is the science of behavior and mind. Psychology includes the study of conscious and unconscious phenomena, as well as feeling and thought. It is an academic discipline of immense scope. Psychologists seek an understanding of the emergent properties of brains, and all the variety of phenomena linked to those emergent properties, joining this way the broader neuroscientific group of researchers. As a social science it aims to understand individuals and groups by establishing general principles and researching specific cases.

Philosophers such as George Berkeley and David Hume, and early experimental psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt and William James, understood ideas in general to be mental images. Today it is very widely believed[ by whom? ] that much imagery functions as mental representations (or mental models), playing an important role in memory and thinking. [10] [11] [12] [13] William Brant (2013, p. 12) traces the scientific use of the phrase "mental images" back to John Tyndall's 1870 speech called the "Scientific Use of the Imagination". Some have gone so far as to suggest that images are best understood to be, by definition, a form of inner, mental or neural representation; [14] [15] in the case of hypnagogic and hypnapompic imagery, it is not representational at all. Others reject the view that the image experience may be identical with (or directly caused by) any such representation in the mind or the brain, [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] but do not take account of the non-representational forms of imagery.

George Berkeley Anglo-Irish philosopher

George Berkeley – known as Bishop Berkeley – was an Irish philosopher whose primary achievement was the advancement of a theory he called "immaterialism". This theory denies the existence of material substance and instead contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers and, as a result, cannot exist without being perceived. Berkeley is also known for his critique of abstraction, an important premise in his argument for immaterialism.

David Hume Scottish philosopher, economist, and historian

David Hume was a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, who is best known today for his highly influential system of philosophical empiricism, scepticism, and naturalism. Hume's empiricist approach to philosophy places him with John Locke, George Berkeley, Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes as a British Empiricist. Beginning with his A Treatise of Human Nature (1738), Hume strove to create a total naturalistic science of man that examined the psychological basis of human nature. Against philosophical rationalists, Hume held that passion rather than reason governs human behaviour. Hume argued against the existence of innate ideas, positing that all human knowledge is founded solely in experience.

Wilhelm Wundt German physician, physiologist, philosopher and professor

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt was a German physician, physiologist, philosopher, and professor, known today as one of the founders of modern psychology. Wundt, who distinguished psychology as a science from philosophy and biology, was the first person ever to call himself a psychologist. He is widely regarded as the "father of experimental psychology". In 1879, at University of Leipzig, Wundt founded the first formal laboratory for psychological research. This marked psychology as an independent field of study. By creating this laboratory he was able to establish psychology as a separate science from other disciplines. He also formed the first academic journal for psychological research, Philosophische Studien, set up to publish the Institute's research.

In 2010, IBM applied for a patent on a method to extract mental images of human faces from the human brain. It uses a feedback loop based on brain measurements of the fusiform face area in the brain that activates proportionate with degree of facial recognition. [22] It was issued in 2015. [23]

IBM American multinational technology and consulting corporation

International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) is an American multinational information technology company headquartered in Armonk, New York, with operations in over 170 countries. The company began in 1911, founded in Endicott, New York, as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR) and was renamed "International Business Machines" in 1924.

Fusiform face area

The fusiform face area - FFA is a part of the human visual system that is specialized for facial recognition. It is located in the Inferior temporal cortex (IT), in the fusiform gyrus.

The mind's eye

The notion of a "mind's eye" goes back at least to Cicero's reference to mentis oculi during his discussion of the orator's appropriate use of simile. [24]

Cicero 1st-century BC Roman lawyer, orator, philosopher and statesman

Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Roman statesman, orator, lawyer and philosopher, who served as consul in the year 63 BC. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the Roman equestrian order, and is considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.

A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two things. Similes differ from metaphors by highlighting the similarities between two things through the use of words such as "like" and "as", while metaphors create an implicit comparison. This distinction is evident in the etymology of the words: simile derives from the Latin word similis, while metaphor derives from the Greek word metapherein. While similes are mainly used in forms of poetry that compare the inanimate and the living, there are also terms in which similes are used for humorous purposes and comparison.

In this discussion, Cicero observed that allusions to "the Syrtis of his patrimony" and "the Charybdis of his possessions" involved similes that were "too far-fetched"; and he advised the orator to, instead, just speak of "the rock" and "the gulf" (respectively)—on the grounds that "the eyes of the mind are more easily directed to those objects which we have seen, than to those which we have only heard". [25]

Gulf of Gabès bay

The Gulf of Gabes, also known as Lesser Syrtis, contrasting with the Greater Syrtis in Libya, is a gulf on Tunisia's east coast in the Mediterranean Sea, off North Africa. The gulf roughly spans the coast from Sfax to Djerba. At the head of the gulf is the city of Gabès (Ghannouche) where the tides have a large range of up to 2.1 m at spring tides. Both Gabès and Sfax are major ports on the gulf, supporting sponge and tuna fisheries, with Gabès being the economic and administrative center.

Charybdis was a sea monster in the Greek Mythology, which was later rationalized as a whirlpool and considered a shipping hazard in the Strait of Messina.

The concept of "the mind's eye" first appeared in English in Chaucer's (c. 1387) Man of Law's Tale in his Canterbury Tales , where he tells us that one of the three men dwelling in a castle was blind, and could only see with "the eyes of his mind"; namely, those eyes "with which all men see after they have become blind". [26] The phrase remained rarely used and the OED incorrectly ascribes it to Shakespeare,[ citation needed ] as the first time the literally introspective phrase ‘the mind's eye’ is used in English was in Hamlet. As an example of introspection, it demonstrates that the internal life of the mind rarely came into focus in literature until the introspective realism movement in the 19th century.

Physical basis

The biological foundation of the mind's eye is not fully understood. Studies using fMRI have shown that the lateral geniculate nucleus and the V1 area of the visual cortex are activated during mental imagery tasks. [27] Ratey writes:

The visual pathway is not a one-way street. Higher areas of the brain can also send visual input back to neurons in lower areas of the visual cortex. [...] As humans, we have the ability to see with the mind's eye—to have a perceptual experience in the absence of visual input. For example, PET scans have shown that when subjects, seated in a room, imagine they are at their front door starting to walk either to the left or right, activation begins in the visual association cortex, the parietal cortex, and the prefrontal cortex—all higher cognitive processing centers of the brain. [28]

The rudiments of a biological basis for the mind's eye is found in the deeper portions of the brain below the neocortex, or where the center of perception exists. The thalamus has been found to be discrete to other components in that it processes all forms of perceptional data relayed from both lower and higher components of the brain. Damage to this component can produce permanent perceptual damage, however when damage is inflicted upon the cerebral cortex, the brain adapts to neuroplasticity to amend any occlusions for perception. It can be thought that the neocortex is a sophisticated memory storage warehouse in which data received as an input from sensory systems are compartmentalized via the cerebral cortex. This would essentially allow for shapes to be identified, although given the lack of filtering input produced internally, one may as a consequence, hallucinate—essentially seeing something that isn't received as an input externally but rather internal (i.e. an error in the filtering of segmented sensory data from the cerebral cortex may result in one seeing, feeling, hearing or experiencing something that is inconsistent with reality).

Not all people have the same internal perceptual ability. For many, when the eyes are closed, the perception of darkness prevails. However, some people are able to perceive colorful, dynamic imagery. The use of hallucinogenic drugs increases the subject's ability to consciously access visual (and auditory, and other sense) percepts.

Furthermore, the pineal gland is a hypothetical candidate for producing a mind's eye; Rick Strassman and others have postulated that during near-death experiences (NDEs) and dreaming, the gland might secrete a hallucinogenic chemical N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) to produce internal visuals when external sensory data is occluded. [29] However, this hypothesis has yet to be fully supported with neurochemical evidence and plausible mechanism for DMT production.

The hypothesized condition where a person lacks a mind's eye is called aphantasia. The term was first suggested in a 2015 study. [30]

Common examples of mental images include daydreaming and the mental visualization that occurs while reading a book. Another is of the pictures summoned by athletes during training or before a competition, outlining each step they will take to accomplish their goal. [31] When a musician hears a song, he or she can sometimes "see" the song notes in their head, as well as hear them with all their tonal qualities. [32] This is considered different from an after-effect, such as an afterimage. Calling up an image in our minds can be a voluntary act, so it can be characterized as being under various degrees of conscious control.

According to psychologist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, [33] our experiences of the world are represented in our minds as mental images. These mental images can then be associated and compared with others, and can be used to synthesize completely new images. In this view, mental images allow us to form useful theories of how the world works by formulating likely sequences of mental images in our heads without having to directly experience that outcome. Whether other creatures have this capability is debatable.

There are several theories as to how mental images are formed in the mind. These include the dual-code theory, the propositional theory, and the functional-equivalency hypothesis. The dual-code theory, created by Allan Paivio in 1971, is the theory that we use two separate codes to represent information in our brains: image codes and verbal codes. Image codes are things like thinking of a picture of a dog when you are thinking of a dog, whereas a verbal code would be to think of the word "dog". [34] Another example is the difference between thinking of abstract words such as justice or love and thinking of concrete words like elephant or chair. When abstract words are thought of, it is easier to think of them in terms of verbal codes—finding words that define them or describe them. With concrete words, it is often easier to use image codes and bring up a picture of a human or chair in your mind rather than words associated or descriptive of them.

The propositional theory involves storing images in the form of a generic propositional code that stores the meaning of the concept not the image itself. The propositional codes can either be descriptive of the image or symbolic. They are then transferred back into verbal and visual code to form the mental image. [35]

The functional-equivalency hypothesis is that mental images are "internal representations" that work in the same way as the actual perception of physical objects. [36] In other words, the picture of a dog brought to mind when the word dog is read is interpreted in the same way as if the person looking at an actual dog before them.

Research has occurred to designate a specific neural correlate of imagery; however, studies show a multitude of results. Most studies published before 2001 suggest neural correlates of visual imagery occur in Brodmann area 17. [37] Auditory performance imagery have been observed in the premotor areas, precunes, and medial Brodmann area 40. [38] Auditory imagery in general occurs across participants in the temporal voice area (TVA), which allows top-down imaging manipulations, processing, and storage of audition functions. [39] Olfactory imagery research shows activation in the anterior piriform cortex and the posterior piriform cortex; experts in olfactory imagery have larger gray matter associated to olfactory areas. [40] Tactile imagery is found to occur in the dorsolateral prefrontal area, inferior frontal gyrus, frontal gyrus, insula, precentral gyrus, and the medial frontal gyrus with basal ganglia activation in the ventral posteriomedial nucleus and putamen (hemisphere activation corresponds to the location of the imagined tactile stimulus). [41] Research in gustatory imagery reveals activation in the anterior insular cortex, frontal operculum, and prefrontal cortex. [37] Novices of a specific form of mental imagery show less gray matter than experts of mental imagery congruent to that form. [42] A meta-analysis of neuroimagery studies revealed significant activation of the bilateral dorsal parietal, interior insula, and left inferior frontal regions of the brain. [43]

Imagery has been thought to cooccur with perception; however, participants with damaged sense-modality receptors can sometimes perform imagery of said modality receptors. [44] Neuroscience with imagery has been used to communicate with seemingly unconscious individuals through fMRI activation of different neural correlates of imagery, demanding further study into low quality consciousness. [45] A study on one patient with one occipital lobe removed found the horizontal area of their visual mental image was reduced. [46]

Neural substrates of visual imagery

Visual imagery is the ability to create mental representations of things, people, and places that are absent from an individual’s visual field. This ability is crucial to problem-solving tasks, memory, and spatial reasoning. [47] Neuroscientists have found that imagery and perception share many of the same neural substrates, or areas of the brain that function similarly during both imagery and perception, such as the visual cortex and higher visual areas. Kosslyn and colleagues (1999) [48] showed that the early visual cortex, Area 17 and Area 18/19, is activated during visual imagery. They found that inhibition of these areas through repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) resulted in impaired visual perception and imagery. Furthermore, research conducted with lesioned patients has revealed that visual imagery and visual perception have the same representational organization. This has been concluded from patients in which impaired perception also experience visual imagery deficits at the same level of the mental representation. [49]

Behrmann and colleagues (1992) [50] describe a patient C.K., who provided evidence challenging the view that visual imagery and visual perception rely on the same representational system. C.K. was a 33-year old man with visual object agnosia acquired after a vehicular accident. This deficit prevented him from being able to recognize objects and copy objects fluidly. Surprisingly, his ability to draw accurate objects from memory indicated his visual imagery was intact and normal. Furthermore, C.K. successfully performed other tasks requiring visual imagery for judgment of size, shape, color, and composition. These findings conflict with previous research as they suggest there is a partial dissociation between visual imagery and visual perception. C.K. exhibited a perceptual deficit that was not associated with a corresponding deficit in visual imagery, indicating that these two processes have systems for mental representations that may not be mediated entirely by the same neural substrates.

Schlegel and colleagues (2013) [51] conducted a functional MRI analysis of regions activated during manipulation of visual imagery. They identified 11 bilateral cortical and subcortical regions that exhibited increased activation when manipulating a visual image compared to when the visual image was just maintained. These regions included the occipital lobe and ventral stream areas, two parietal lobe regions, the posterior parietal cortex and the precuneus lobule, and three frontal lobe regions, the frontal eye fields, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the prefrontal cortex. Due to their suspected involvement in working memory and attention, the authors propose that these parietal and prefrontal regions, and occipital regions, are part of a network involved in mediating the manipulation of visual imagery. These results suggest a top-down activation of visual areas in visual imagery. [52]

Using Dynamic Causal Modeling (DCM) to determine the connectivity of cortical networks, Ishai et al. (2010) [53] demonstrated that activation of the network mediating visual imagery is initiated by prefrontal cortex and posterior parietal cortex activity. Generation of objects from memory resulted in initial activation of the prefrontal and the posterior parietal areas, which then activate earlier visual areas through backward connectivity. Activation of the prefrontal cortex and posterior parietal cortex has also been found to be involved in retrieval of object representations from long-term memory, their maintenance in working memory, and attention during visual imagery. Thus, Ishai et al. suggest that the network mediating visual imagery is composed of attentional mechanisms arising from the posterior parietal cortex and the prefrontal cortex.

Vividness of visual imagery is a crucial component of an individual’s ability to perform cognitive tasks requiring imagery. Vividness of visual imagery varies not only between individuals but also within individuals. Dijkstra and colleagues (2017) [47] found that the variation in vividness of visual imagery is dependent on the degree to which the neural substrates of visual imagery overlap with those of visual perception. They found that overlap between imagery and perception in the entire visual cortex, the parietal precuneus lobule, the right parietal cortex, and the medial frontal cortex predicted the vividness of a mental representation. The activated regions beyond the visual areas are believed to drive the imagery-specific processes rather than the visual processes shared with perception. It has been suggested that the precuneus contributes to vividness by selecting important details for imagery. The medial frontal cortex is suspected to be involved in the retrieval and integration of information from the parietal and visual areas during working memory and visual imagery. The right parietal cortex appears to be important in attention, visual inspection, and stabilization of mental representations. Thus, the neural substrates of visual imagery and perception overlap in areas beyond the visual cortex and the degree of this overlap in these areas correlates with the vividness of mental representations during imagery.

Philosophical ideas

Mental images are an important topic in classical and modern philosophy, as they are central to the study of knowledge. In the Republic , Book VII, Plato has Socrates present the Allegory of the Cave: a prisoner, bound and unable to move, sits with his back to a fire watching the shadows cast on the cave wall in front of him by people carrying objects behind his back. These people and the objects they carry are representations of real things in the world. Unenlightened man is like the prisoner, explains Socrates, a human being making mental images from the sense data that he experiences.

The eighteenth-century philosopher Bishop George Berkeley proposed similar ideas in his theory of idealism. Berkeley stated that reality is equivalent to mental imagesour mental images are not a copy of another material reality but that reality itself. Berkeley, however, sharply distinguished between the images that he considered to constitute the external world, and the images of individual imagination. According to Berkeley, only the latter are considered "mental imagery" in the contemporary sense of the term.

The eighteenth century British writer Dr. Samuel Johnson criticized idealism. When asked what he thought about idealism, he is alleged to have replied "I refute it thus!"[ This quote needs a citation ] as he kicked a large rock and his leg rebounded. His point was that the idea that the rock is just another mental image and has no material existence of its own is a poor explanation of the painful sense data he had just experienced.

David Deutsch addresses Johnson's objection to idealism in The Fabric of Reality when he states that, if we judge the value of our mental images of the world by the quality and quantity of the sense data that they can explain, then the most valuable mental imageor theorythat we currently have is that the world has a real independent existence and that humans have successfully evolved by building up and adapting patterns of mental images to explain it. This is an important idea in scientific thought.[ why? ]

Critics of scientific realism ask how the inner perception of mental images actually occurs. This is sometimes called the "homunculus problem" (see also the mind's eye). The problem is similar to asking how the images you see on a computer screen exist in the memory of the computer. To scientific materialism, mental images and the perception of them must be brain-states. According to critics,[ who? ] scientific realists cannot explain where the images and their perceiver exist in the brain. To use the analogy of the computer screen, these critics argue that cognitive science and psychology have been unsuccessful in identifying either the component in the brain (i.e., "hardware") or the mental processes that store these images (i.e. "software").

In experimental psychology

Cognitive psychologists and (later) cognitive neuroscientists have empirically tested some of the philosophical questions related to whether and how the human brain uses mental imagery in cognition.

Mental rotation task (diagram).jpg

One theory of the mind that was examined in these experiments was the "brain as serial computer" philosophical metaphor of the 1970s. Psychologist Zenon Pylyshyn theorized that the human mind processes mental images by decomposing them into an underlying mathematical proposition. Roger Shepard and Jacqueline Metzler challenged that view by presenting subjects with 2D line drawings of groups of 3D block "objects" and asking them to determine whether that "object" is the same as a second figure, some of which rotations of the first "object". [54] Shepard and Metzler proposed that if we decomposed and then mentally re-imaged the objects into basic mathematical propositions, as the then-dominant view of cognition "as a serial digital computer" [55] assumed, then it would be expected that the time it took to determine whether the object is the same or not would be independent of how much the object had been rotated. Shepard and Metzler found the opposite: a linear relationship between the degree of rotation in the mental imagery task and the time it took participants to reach their answer.

This mental rotation finding implied that the human mind—and the human brain—maintains and manipulates mental images as topographic and topological wholes, an implication that was quickly put to test by psychologists. Stephen Kosslyn and colleagues [56] showed in a series of neuroimaging experiments that the mental image of objects like the letter "F" are mapped, maintained and rotated as an image-like whole in areas of the human visual cortex. Moreover, Kosslyn's work showed that there are considerable similarities between the neural mappings for imagined stimuli and perceived stimuli. The authors of these studies concluded that, while the neural processes they studied rely on mathematical and computational underpinnings, the brain also seems optimized to handle the sort of mathematics that constantly computes a series of topologically-based images rather than calculating a mathematical model of an object.

Recent studies in neurology and neuropsychology on mental imagery have further questioned the "mind as serial computer" theory, arguing instead that human mental imagery manifests both visually and kinesthetically. For example, several studies have provided evidence that people are slower at rotating line drawings of objects such as hands in directions incompatible with the joints of the human body, [57] and that patients with painful, injured arms are slower at mentally rotating line drawings of the hand from the side of the injured arm. [58]

Some psychologists, including Kosslyn, have argued that such results occur because of interference in the brain between distinct systems in the brain that process the visual and motor mental imagery. Subsequent neuroimaging studies [59] showed that the interference between the motor and visual imagery system could be induced by having participants physically handle actual 3D blocks glued together to form objects similar to those depicted in the line-drawings. Amorim et al. have shown that, when a cylindrical "head" was added to Shepard and Metzler's line drawings of 3D block figures, participants were quicker and more accurate at solving mental rotation problems. [60] They argue that motoric embodiment is not just "interference" that inhibits visual mental imagery but is capable of facilitating mental imagery.

As cognitive neuroscience approaches to mental imagery continued, research expanded beyond questions of serial versus parallel or topographic processing to questions of the relationship between mental images and perceptual representations. Both brain imaging (fMRI and ERP) and studies of neuropsychological patients have been used to test the hypothesis that a mental image is the reactivation, from memory, of brain representations normally activated during the perception of an external stimulus. In other words, if perceiving an apple activates contour and location and shape and color representations in the brain’s visual system, then imagining an apple activates some or all of these same representations using information stored in memory. Early evidence for this idea came from neuropsychology. Patients with brain damage that impairs perception in specific ways, for example by damaging shape or color representations, seem to generally to have impaired mental imagery in similar ways. [61] Studies of brain function in normal human brains support this same conclusion, showing activity in the brain’s visual areas while subjects imagined visual objects and scenes. [62]

The previously mentioned and numerous related studies have led to a relative consensus within cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy on the neural status of mental images. In general, researchers agree that, while there is no homunculus inside the head viewing these mental images, our brains do form and maintain mental images as image-like wholes. [63] The problem of exactly how these images are stored and manipulated within the human brain, in particular within language and communication, remains a fertile area of study.

One of the longest-running research topics on the mental image has basis on the fact that people report large individual differences in the vividness of their images. Special questionnaires have been developed to assess such differences, including the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) developed by David Marks. Laboratory studies have suggested that the subjectively reported variations in imagery vividness are associated with different neural states within the brain and also different cognitive competences such as the ability to accurately recall information presented in pictures [64] Rodway, Gillies and Schepman used a novel long-term change detection task to determine whether participants with low and high vividness scores on the VVIQ2 showed any performance differences. [65] Rodway et al. found that high vividness participants were significantly more accurate at detecting salient changes to pictures compared to low-vividness participants. [66] This replicated an earlier study. [67]

Recent studies have found that individual differences in VVIQ scores can be used to predict changes in a person's brain while visualizing different activities. [68] Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to study the association between early visual cortex activity relative to the whole brain while participants visualized themselves or another person bench pressing or stair climbing. Reported image vividness correlates significantly with the relative fMRI signal in the visual cortex. Thus, individual differences in the vividness of visual imagery can be measured objectively.

Logie, Pernet, Buonocore and Della Sala (2011) used behavioural and fMRI data for mental rotation from individuals reporting vivid and poor imagery on the VVIQ. Groups differed in brain activation patterns suggesting that the groups performed the same tasks in different ways. These findings help to explain the lack of association previously reported between VVIQ scores and mental rotation performance.

Training and learning styles

Some educational theorists [ who? ] have drawn from the idea of mental imagery in their studies of learning styles. Proponents of these theories state that people often have learning processes that emphasize visual, auditory, and kinesthetic systems of experience.[ citation needed ] According to these theorists, teaching in multiple overlapping sensory systems benefits learning, and they encourage teachers to use content and media that integrates well with the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic systems whenever possible.

Educational researchers have examined whether the experience of mental imagery affects the degree of learning. For example, imagining playing a five-finger piano exercise (mental practice) resulted in a significant improvement in performance over no mental practice—though not as significant as that produced by physical practice. The authors of the study stated that "mental practice alone seems to be sufficient to promote the modulation of neural circuits involved in the early stages of motor skill learning". [69]

Visualization and the Himalayan traditions

In general, Vajrayana Buddhism, Bön, and Tantra utilize sophisticated visualization or imaginal (in the language of Jean Houston of Transpersonal Psychology) processes in the thoughtform construction of the yidam sadhana, kye-rim, and dzog-rim modes of meditation and in the yantra, thangka, and mandala traditions, where holding the fully realized form in the mind is a prerequisite prior to creating an 'authentic' new art work that will provide a sacred support or foundation for deity. [70] [71]

Substitution effects

Mental imagery can act as a substitute for the imagined experience: Imagining an experience can evoke similar cognitive, physiological, and/or behavioral consequences as having the corresponding experience in reality. At least four classes of such effects have been documented. [6]

  1. Imagined experiences are attributed evidentiary value like physical evidence.
  2. Mental practice can instantiate the same performance benefits as physical practice.
  3. Imagined consumption of a food can reduce its actual consumption.
  4. Imagined goal achievement can reduce motivation for actual goal achievement.

See also

Related Research Articles

Wishful thinking decision-making based on what might be pleasing to imagine, rather than on evidence or rationality.

Wishful thinking describes decision-making and the formation of beliefs based on what might be pleasing to imagine, rather than on evidence, rationality, or reality. It is a product of resolving conflicts between belief, and desire.

Precuneus part of the brain

The precuneus is the portion of the superior parietal lobule on the medial surface of each brain hemisphere. It is located in front of the cuneus. The precuneus is bounded in front by the marginal branch of the cingulate sulcus, at the rear by the parietooccipital sulcus, and underneath by the subparietal sulcus. It is involved with episodic memory, visuospatial processing, reflections upon self, and aspects of consciousness.

Temporal lobe part of the brain

The temporal lobe is involved in processing sensory input into derived meanings for the appropriate retention of visual memory, language comprehension, and emotion association.


Neuroesthetics is a relatively recent sub-discipline of empirical aesthetics. Empirical aesthetics takes a scientific approach to the study of aesthetic perceptions of art, music, or any object that can give rise to aesthetic judgments. Neuroesthetics received its formal definition in 2002 as the scientific study of the neural bases for the contemplation and creation of a work of art. Neuroesthetics uses neuroscience to explain and understand the aesthetic experiences at the neurological level. The topic attracts scholars from many disciplines including neuroscientists, art historians, artists, and psychologists.

Visual memory

Visual memory describes the relationship between perceptual processing and the encoding, storage and retrieval of the resulting neural representations. Visual memory occurs over a broad time range spanning from eye movements to years in order to visually navigate to a previously visited location. Visual memory is a form of memory which preserves some characteristics of our senses pertaining to visual experience. We are able to place in memory visual information which resembles objects, places, animals or people in a mental image. The experience of visual memory is also referred to as the mind's eye through which we can retrieve from our memory a mental image of original objects, places, animals or people. Visual memory is one of several cognitive systems, which are all interconnected parts that combine to form the human memory. Types of palinopsia, the persistence or recurrence of a visual image after the stimulus has been removed, is a dysfunction of visual memory.

Auditory imagery is a form of mental imagery that is used to organize and analyze sounds when there is no external auditory stimulus present. This form of imagery is broken up into a couple of auditory modalities such as verbal imagery or musical imagery. This modality of mental imagery differs from other sensory images such as motor imagery or visual imagery. The vividness and detail of auditory imagery can vary from person-to-person depending on their background and condition of their brain. Through all of the research developed to understand auditory imagery behavioral neuroscientists have found that the auditory images developed in subjects' minds are generated in real time and consist of fairly precise information about quantifiable auditory properties as well as melodic and harmonic relationships. These studies have been able to recently gain confirmation and recognition due to the arrival of Positron emission tomography and fMRI scans that can confirm a physiological and psychological correlation.

Creative visualization is the cognitive process of purposefully generating visual mental imagery, with eyes open or closed, simulating or recreating visual perception, in order to maintain, inspect, and transform those images, consequently modifying their associated emotions or feelings, with intent to experience a subsequent beneficial physiological, psychological, or social effect, such as expediting the healing of wounds to the body, minimizing physical pain, alleviating psychological pain including anxiety, sadness, and low mood, improving self-esteem or self-confidence, and enhancing the capacity to cope when interacting with others.

Neuroanthropology is the study of the relationship between culture and the brain.

Retrosplenial cortex Part of the brains cerebral cortex

The retrosplenial cortex (RSC) is a cortical area in the brain, located posteriorly and comprising Brodmann areas 29 and 30 .The region's name refers to its anatomical location immediately behind the splenium of the corpus callosum in primates, although in rodents it is located more towards the brain surface and is relatively larger. Its function is currently not well understood, but its location close to visual areas and also to the hippocampal spatial/memory system suggest it may have a role in mediating between perceptual and memory functions.

Temporoparietal junction brain area

The temporoparietal junction (TPJ) is an area of the brain where the temporal and parietal lobes meet, at the posterior end of the lateral sulcus. The TPJ incorporates information from the thalamus and the limbic system, as well as from the visual, auditory, and somatosensory systems. The TPJ also integrates information from both the external environment as well as from within the body. The TPJ is responsible for collecting all of this information and then processing it. This area is also known to play a crucial role in self-other distinctions processes and theory of mind (ToM). Furthermore, damage to the TPJ has been implicated in having adverse effects on an individual's ability to make moral decisions and has been known to produce out-of-body experiences (OBEs). Electromagnetic stimulation of the TPJ can also cause these effects. Apart from these diverse roles that the TPJ plays, it is also known for its involvement in a variety of widespread disorders including amnesia, Alzheimer's disease, and schizophrenia.

Neural correlates of consciousness Bodily components, such as electrical signals, correlating to consciousness and thinking

The neural correlates of consciousness (NCC) constitute the minimal set of neuronal events and mechanisms sufficient for a specific conscious percept. Neuroscientists use empirical approaches to discover neural correlates of subjective phenomena; that is, neural changes which necessarily and regularly correlate with a specific experience. The set should be minimal because, under the assumption that the brain is sufficient to give rise to any given conscious experience, the question is which of its components is necessary to produce it.

The concept of motor cognition grasps the notion that cognition is embodied in action, and that the motor system participates in what is usually considered as mental processing, including those involved in social interaction. The fundamental unit of the motor cognition paradigm is action, defined as the movements produced to satisfy an intention towards a specific motor goal, or in reaction to a meaningful event in the physical and social environments. Motor cognition takes into account the preparation and production of actions, as well as the processes involved in recognizing, predicting, mimicking and understanding the behavior of other people. This paradigm has received a great deal of attention and empirical support in recent years from a variety of research domains including developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and social psychology.

Motor imagery is a mental process by which an individual rehearses or simulates a given action. It is widely used in sport training as mental practice of action, neurological rehabilitation, and has also been employed as a research paradigm in cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology to investigate the content and the structure of covert processes that precede the execution of action. In some medical, musical, and athletic contexts, when paired with physical rehearsal, mental rehearsal can be as effective as pure physical rehearsal (practice) of an action.

Recognition memory, a subcategory of declarative memory, is the ability to recognize previously encountered events, objects, or people. When the previously experienced event is reexperienced, this environmental content is matched to stored memory representations, eliciting matching signals.

Cultural neuroscience is a field of research that focuses on the interrelation between a human’s cultural environment and neurobiological systems. The field particularly incorporates ideas and perspectives from related domains like anthropology, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience to study sociocultural influences on human behaviors. Such impacts on behavior are often measured using various neuroimaging methods, through which cross-cultural variability in neural activity can be examined.

The neuroscience of music is the scientific study of brain-based mechanisms involved in the cognitive processes underlying music. These behaviours include music listening, performing, composing, reading, writing, and ancillary activities. It also is increasingly concerned with the brain basis for musical aesthetics and musical emotion. Scientists working in this field may have training in cognitive neuroscience, neurology, neuroanatomy, psychology, music theory, computer science, and other relevant fields.

Autonoetic consciousness is the human ability to mentally place ourselves in the past, in the future, or in counterfactual situations, and to thus be able to examine our own thoughts.

Prefrontal synthesis

Prefrontal synthesis is the conscious purposeful process of synthesizing novel mental images. PFS is neurologically different from the other types of imagination, such as simple memory recall and dreaming. Unlike dreaming, which is spontaneous and not controlled by the prefrontal cortex (PFC), PFS is controlled by and completely dependent on the intact lateral prefrontal cortex. Unlike simple memory recall that involves activation of a single neuronal ensemble (NE) encoded at some point in the past, PFS involves active combination of two or more object-encoding neuronal ensembles (objectNE). The mechanism of PFS is hypothesized to involve synchronization of several independent objectNEs. When objectNEs fire out-of-sync, the objects are perceived one at a time. However, once those objectNEs are time-shifted by the lateral PFC to fire in-phase with each other, they are consciously experienced as one unified object or scene. In this process humans can manufacture an unlimited number of novel mental images and plan their future actions through mental simulation of the physical world.

Social cognitive neuroscience is the scientific study of the biological processes underpinning social cognition. Specifically, it uses the tools of neuroscience to study "the mental mechanisms that create, frame, regulate, and respond to our experience of the social world". Social cognitive neuroscience uses the epistemological foundations of cognitive neuroscience, and is closely related to social neuroscience. Social cognitive neuroscience employs human neuroimaging, typically using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Human brain stimulation techniques such as transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial direct-current stimulation are also used. In nonhuman animals, direct electrophysiological recordings and electrical stimulation of single cells and neuronal populations are utilized for investigating lower-level social cognitive processes.

The term posterior cortical hot zone was coined by Christof Koch and colleagues to describe part of neocortex closely associated with the minimal neural substrate essential for conscious perception. The posterior cortical hot zone includes sensory cortical areas in the parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes. It is the “sensory” cortex, much as the frontal cortex is the “action” cortex.


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Further reading