Psychology of Mental Imagery Research Paper

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The capacity of the human mind to store traces of past sensory events undoubtedly has considerable adaptive value, by enabling human beings to retrieve and consult information about absent objects or remote events. Obviously, the destiny of large portions of the human’s daily experience is to be forgotten, but the ability to preserve and reactivate sensory traces of objects or events in the form of conscious internal events is a feature of great significance for a living organism.

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1. Definitions

A ‘mental image’ is a cognitive event that encodes figural information about currently nonperceived objects and, in metaphorical terms, renders absent objects present to the mind. ‘Mental imagery’ refers to the mechanisms involved when a person builds the internal representations that encode the figural content of objects or events, stores them in a memory store, and later reinstates the original information by means of some form of reactivation. Reactivation can ultimately result in a material output, such as a graphic production intended to reflect the appearance of a memorized object. Reactivation can also remain an internal, private event. Some of the information can be externalized through verbal discourse, when the person describes an imaged object, whether this is in response to an external request or because the person spontaneously intends to express knowledge about the object.

Even if it were to be limited to the evocation of past experience, mental imagery would still be a very valuable capacity. Actually, once an organism is endowed with the capacity of creating images, this enables it to process remote or absent objects, which extends the range of its potential actions in the world considerably. Moreover, beyond simply reproducing past perceptions, mental imagery can be used for creative purposes, to create mentally structures or patterns that have never been experienced perceptually, and in fact could well be impossible for the person to experience. Imagination, as the faculty of constructing new patterns, extends the range of human action. Creative or anticipatory imagery is essential in many forms of human activity, such as engineering, architecture, art, and design.

Imaginal experiences can be generated in relation to all sensory modalities. So far it is the visual modality that seems to have elicited most of the theoretical and empirical research in psychology, but auditory imagery and, more recently, olfactory and kinesthetic imagery, are now attracting the interest of numerous researchers. However, beyond identifying the range of imagery experiences, the main challenge for research is, first, to confirm the existence of psychological events that can be characterized as ‘images,’ and then go on to describe their content and structure, examine their role in cognitive functioning, and, last but not least, provide evidence that mental images have specific features that make them a distinct category of mental representation. The major thrust of research in recent years has been to consider images as specific forms of representation, and to account for their unique contribution to human cognition. As a result, imagery tends to be envisaged in the context of multimodal theories of the human mind.

2. Physiological and Brain Correlates of Mental Imagery

One of the greatest difficulties for psychology is to assess the occurrence and content of private events. Psychologists have attempted to go beyond collecting verbal and graphic expressions of these events, and collect indirect, but it is hoped reliable, indicators of mental imagery. The underlying assumption is that if cognitive events can only be ‘viewed’ by the minds that generate them, and not by external observers, then measurable correlates are needed that can be related to the properties of the reported images. For instance, electrodermal response and heart rate have been shown to be affected by the emotional charge of imagined objects. However, it is still unclear whether it is the images themselves that cause the observed physiological responses, or whether some more abstract cognitive entities are responsible for both the subjective experience of imagery and the concomitant physiological responses.

Several forms of ocular activity have been envisaged as potential reflections of imaginal experience in the visual modality. If imagery consists of reinstating at least part of the patterns of activity that took place during initial input processing, it may be useful to find out whether ocular motor functions reflect anything of this processing. Jean Piaget initially promoted this approach in the context of his theory of imitative imagery. However, the data have never confirmed any clear relationship between the patterns of eye activity during perception and in the imagery of specific objects. The only effect that has been established clearly is the pattern of ocular activity that accompanies the imagination of objects in motion (such as a pendulum). Another measurement that has elicited a great deal of interest is pupil dilation. The time course of pupil diameter change exhibits quite different patterns depending on how easily images can be generated in response to concrete or abstract nouns (so that the generation of readily available images of concrete objects contrasts with that of associative images attached to abstract concepts). However, this is more likely to reflect the cognitive load associated with the generation of images for abstract concepts, rather than the processes underlying image construction per se.

Not surprisingly, research has tended to question the real value of information collected from neurovegetative responses, and concentrate more and more on evidence obtained from measurements of brain activity. Electroencephalographic recordings of the brain activity that accompanies the formation of visual images have established reliably that the alpha rhythm decreases in the occipital areas when a person is generating and ‘looking at’ visual images. Similarly, studies based on evoked potentials have shown maximal positivity in the occipital and posterior temporal regions of the brains of individuals who form visual images of familiar objects in response to object nouns. Thus, the regions of the brain involved in visual processing also appear to be implicated in the generation and manipulation of mental images. These empirical findings have been interpreted as suggesting that perception and imagery may not only share specific sites of the neural architecture, but may involve similar mechanisms. In addition, a large amount of empirical evidence of intimate functional interactions between images and percepts (both facilitation and interference) suggests that a common neuronal substrate underlies both activities. When people are invited to detect a visually presented shape while imagining simultaneously the same or another distinct shape, the amplitude of the evoked potentials is greater when the two shapes match.

Neuroimaging techniques have provided numerous data that corroborate the indications based on electrophysiological measurements, and provide still more accurate information about the regions involved in generating and manipulating visual images. Single photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT) initially indicated that the occipital cortex is implicated in the production of visual images. In tasks where the participants had to verify sentences, and presumably relied on visual representations of the situations described, the verification of sentences that were more likely to involve imagery (such as ‘The green of fir trees is darker than that of grass’) was accompanied by more occipital activity than the verification of sentences which did not call upon imagery (‘The intensity of electrical current is measured in amperes’). Subsequently, positron emission tomography (PET) has provided converging evidence for a variety of imagery tasks. However, evidence for the role of some specific occipital regions is not consistent or unambiguous. Some authors have reported activity of the primary visual cortex in visual imagery, but others failed to find any such activity in this region, but only in the associative regions (mainly the temporo-occipital and parieto-occipital regions). Furthermore, the studies that reported activity in the primary visual cortex also suggested the topographical organization of the cortical regions involved in visual imagery, whereas the other studies seemed to indicate that the cortical areas serving mental imagery were only a subset of the areas involved in visual perception.

The recent development of more sophisticated techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), has provided strong evidence in support of the view that early visual areas may be responsible for both visual perception and imagery. The discrepancies among the various neuroimaging studies can in fact mainly be attributed to individual differences. They may also reflect the differing degrees of image resolution required by different imagery tasks. Different imagery tasks may not require similar ‘grain’ or resolution to be achieved, and may therefore involve different regions of the brain. The concept developed by Stephen Kosslyn distinguishes between three sorts of imagery. The first is ‘spatial imagery,’ or imagery dedicated to the mental representation of spatial relationships, in which the visual character of the image currently evoked is not crucial to performing the task. Occipito-parietal regions of the brain seem mainly to be responsible for this type of imagery. The second form is ‘figural imagery,’ which occurs only when a low-resolution topographic image is generated from the activation of stored representations of shapes or objects. The inferior temporal cortex seems to be primarily involved in this form of imagery, which does not call for high-resolution components. The third form is ‘depictive imagery,’ which is thought to rely on high-resolution representation in the primary visual cortex. It is involved in tasks that require a finegrained representation, such as when shapes have to be interpreted or compared. Shared neural processes are thought to underlie both perception and depictive imagery.

Converging evidence about the role of the occipital regions in mental imagery is also available from neuropsychology, in particular from cases involving a documented syndrome of ‘imagery loss.’ This deficit can occur without any impairment of perceptual recognition. Neuropsychological investigations attest that the brains of patients with an impaired capacity to generate visual images also display cortical lesions in the occipital regions. Furthermore, patients with temporo-occipital lesions are unable to gain any advantage from imagery instructions in verbal learning tasks that normally benefit from imagery. It is worth mentioning that patients who are suffering from unilateral perceptual neglect may also show similar unilateral deficit when they are invited to report the content of scenes from their imagination. These data suggest that the central mechanisms used for imaginal processing mirror the mechanisms involved in perception. However, cases of pure representational neglect also occur, without any neglect of objects present in the patient’s visual environment.

3. Behavioral Attestations of Mental Imagery

So far it looks as though several objective measurements can be linked systematically to the occurrence of mental imagery. Some of them are presumably no more than physiological events that accompany imagery activity, whereas measurements of brain activity are thought to be more intimately related to the actual process of image construction. However, strictly speaking, neither of these measurements gives psychologists any information about the cognitive events that interest them. This shortcoming has led to another line of research, which has also been quite popular among imagery researchers. The argument is that if the intimate mechanisms of images cannot be defined, even by a thorough analysis of the changes of their physiological concomitants, it could be more helpful to look at the effects of imagery on the behavior of people invited to form mental images while performing a cognitive task.

The paradigm used in this approach is very simple. A person is invited to carry out a cognitive task that will be expressed in the form of a measurable performance. Under control conditions, only the instructions to carry out the task are given. Under the test conditions, the same task has to be performed, but in addition the participant is instructed to make use of mental imagery while carrying it out. In conventional memory tests, for instance, participants presented with a list of concrete nouns may be invited to memorize these nouns (control condition), or they may receive the additional instruction to generate visual images of the objects designated by these nouns (experimental condition). When recall is measured at the end of the experiment, the comparison of the two scores can be expected to show whether imagery instructions have had any impact, and if so, whether this has been beneficial or detrimental. Many empirical studies carried out using this very simple approach have provided evidence that imagery does have a positive impact on the memory of both verbal and pictorial materials. Provided the participants are allowed enough time, the effect is not very different from that produced by presenting pictures depicting the objects in addition to the nouns. However, the effect cannot be considered to be just a nonspecific result of the fact that extra processing has been imposed by the instructions, since other powerful strategies, as those based on linguistic elaboration, do not produce an effect of the same magnitude.

The facilitating effects of imagery on verbal memory have been assessed for more complex materials than lists of words. They have been shown to occur for tasks ranging from paired-associate learning through sentence memory, to memory of paragraphs or texts. In addition, in a variant of the paradigm in which no imagery instructions are given, but where the investigator compares the performance of individuals identified as ‘high’ and ‘low’ imagers respectively (on the basis of specific psychometric assessment), the former have higher memory scores, suggesting that they spontaneously make use of their capacity to convert verbal inputs into mental images. The impact of individual differences, however, is only found for materials that can be readily imaged. For instance, high imagers do better than low imagers in remembering narratives involving characters, scenery, and events that are easy to image, but the groups do not differ with regard to their memory of abstract texts. In comprehension tasks, high imagers process descriptions of spatial configurations more quickly than low imagers, and they recall their content more accurately. This is especially true when the poor sequential structure of these descriptions creates special demands on the readers’ cognitive resources. High imagers need less time than their counterparts to process spatial descriptions in which configurations are described according to unexpected or incoherent sequences.

If one considers other domains of cognitive processing, such as reasoning or problem solving, there is ample demonstration that strategies based on the visualization of the data and their combination into integrated figures facilitates the successful performance of the task. This is true, for instance, for the resolution of spatial problems, as well as the resolution of three-term syllogisms. However, in the case of syllogisms, only visuo-spatial relationships (such as those expressed by ‘abo e–below’) and relationships that can be visualized metaphorically (‘better–worse’) benefit from imagery instructions, but this is not the case for relationships with no spatial content (‘darker–brighter’). It is worth noting that imagery is being used here as an alternative to other powerful methods, such as reasoning based on the rules of logic. Imagery achieves the visual picturing of displays from which solutions can be ‘read out’ without any recourse to formal reasoning.

The same is true of visuo-spatial problems such as the following: ‘Think of a cube, all six surfaces of which are painted red. Di ide the cube into 27 equal cubes by making two horizontal cuts and two sets of two ertical cuts each. How many of the resulting cubes will ha e three faces painted red, how many two, how many one, and how many none?’ This problem can be solved by a reasoning procedure totally devoid of any imagery. For instance, to decide how many cubes have three faces painted red, people can access available information in their knowledge base, indicating that a cube has eight corners, and that since a corner is defined by the intersection of three faces, there will be eight cubes with three red faces. However, it is remarkable that the vast majority of people, even those who have mastered sophisticated reasoning methods, tend to rely on visual imagery when they have to solve this sort of problem.

In most of the cases mentioned above, researchers are forced to conclude that imagery does indeed have positive effects, but that alternative strategies that do not call upon mental imagery can also be quite efficient. Imagery, then, is not to be seen as a ‘cognitive panacea,’ but rather as an especially efficient cognitive procedure among a variety of strategies. Other situations of interest are those where the question to which the person must respond concerns an aspect of an object or a situation that he or she has never processed before, but which is nevertheless accessible from memory. In other words, the person is invited to consider some aspect of the situation for the first time, and asked a question, the answer to which is unlikely ever to have been stored in the memory in a linguistic or propositional form. For instance, on a map of Europe, do Paris, Berlin, and Moscow lie on a straight line? Or in which hand does the Statue of Liberty hold her torch? If people are able to answer such questions, this is probably because information has been retained from previous exposure to the objects in a form that preserves their visual and spatial characteristics. In such cases, imagery seems to be the only way a person could possibly access the relevant information.

Imagery does not only involve reinstating the visual patterns of previously seen objects. In most problemsolving situations, imagery involves carrying out a series of transformations of imagined figures. By combining images of individual objects or parts of objects, the person can produce imaged patterns and subject them to novel interpretations. This process is presumably an important component of discovery processes. It works in contexts where the transformations are carried out in response to explicit verbal instructions from an investigator, but also in less constrained conditions, such as creative visual synthesis. Creative processes in art and design obviously rely on these capabilities of the human mind.

4. The Structural Properties of Mental Images

When brought into play in the context of cognitive functioning, imagery is generally shown to have beneficial effects on performance. Although these effects have been confirmed by hundreds of experiments, in themselves they do not tell us anything about the properties of mental images, or why they are so powerful in cognitive processing. In some cases, the effects of imagery can be explained as providing an extra opportunity to process information. Thus, simply because it is more advantageous to encode any item of information under two forms rather than just one, the addition of imagery to cognitive processing should enhance performance. The concept of dual coding, as illustrated and advocated by Allan Paivio, is mainly based on this type of explanation, although the dual code theory also introduces the further argument that image codes have intrinsic properties that render them more powerful than other, mainly verbal codes.

This situation has led researchers to explore the possibility that mental images may have structural properties that distinguish them from other forms of representation, and that these properties could account for their functional properties. Research has thus shifted toward using empirical methods intended to assess the intimate characteristics of mental images. The basic tenet of this approach is the distinction between long-term memory representations that encode figural information (in a form that is left unspecified), and images as transient cognitive events resulting from the activation of these long-term representations. The subjective counterpart of the activation of these patterns of figural information is the occurrence of a conscious image. The theory of mental imagery developed by Stephen Kosslyn delineates the properties of the mental ‘medium’ (or ‘visual buffer’) on which images are thought to be activated.

The visual buffer is conceived of as a matrix endowed with the functional properties of a coordinate space. It has limited resolution and is subject to processing constraints similar to those that affect visual perception. In particular, images, like percepts, are constrained with regard to the apparent size of imagined objects. Just as it is more difficult to distinguish details of an object on a tiny photograph than on a larger one, so a detail of an imagined object is more rapidly ‘detected’ in images of objects that are imagined at a larger size. Moreover, when an object is imagined at a given size, the parts that occupy a larger space are more rapidly ‘detected’ than the less extensive parts. The processing device in which visual images are constructed has nonextensible limits which constrain the amount of information present simultaneously in these images.

A set of hypotheses on the processes underlying mental imagery has been developed in the light of this theoretical framework. These hypotheses concern the mental medium on which images are displayed, and they promote a ‘modular’ concept of imagery that distinguishes between the processes of generation, maintenance, exploration, and transformation of images. The view entertained here rejects the concept of imagery as a single undifferentiated function, but instead assumes that imagery corresponds to a set of distinct subcapacities that are largely independent of each other. This approach implies that people may differ with regard to one or more of these capacities, and the concept of a ‘high imager’ should be defined in terms of the specific processes actually contributing to this greater capacity. Consequently, there may be several ways of being a ‘high imager,’ depending on the imagery modules involved. Furthermore, people may be said to be ‘high imagers’ because they possess especially well-developed aptitudes, but also because they are inclined naturally to use imagery in preference to other strategies. Individual orientation toward imagery may also be determined by metacognitive awareness of the efficiency of images in memory and thinking.

Most attempts to identify the sources of efficacy of images converge on the assumption that images draw their efficacy from features that make them the best cognitive substitutes for actual perceptual events. The comparison of human behavior in perceptual and imaginal situations often reveals similarities of response patterns. Of course, people usually discriminate between their perceptions and their imaginal experiences, but there are many similarities in the way they access these two types of information. For instance, people’s verbal descriptions of an object available to their current visual inspection or from memory are very similar. In other words, a percept and an image seem to yield patterns of information that impose comparable modes of processing. Furthermore, the parts of a configuration that are best remembered, because they are more salient or more remarkable, are also those best remembered from images of these configurations.

Chronometric measurements have proved a valuable way of identifying the critical features of the image structure. It has been shown that when people scan mentally between two points on the visual image of an imagined configuration, this takes a time that is proportional to the distance between the two points on the original visual configuration. This finding seems to imply that visual images have a structure that analogically reflects the metric structure of the objects evoked. There is no suggestion that the pattern of activation corresponding to imaginal experience occurs on spatially defined portions of the brain, but simply that the spatial properties of objects, including their metric properties, are in some way reflected in their imaginal counterparts. The spatial characteristics of objects previously perceived are represented in visual images and stored in the memory. A further feature of interest is that spatial information can be included in the visual images of configurations that have been constructed from verbal descriptions and that the person has never actually seen. Even if the distances between objects are not explicitly expressed in the verbal description of a visuospatial configuration, the very process of constructing a mental image requires the visualization of the distances between the items that compose the configuration. This is due to an essential characteristic of analog representations, where the fact of positing objects at specific locations at the same time inevitably displays the spatial relationships among these objects.

Research on mental rotation has also yielded data suggesting the analogous character of visual images. The basic finding from Roger Shepard’s paradigm is that the time it takes to rotate an object mentally increases as a function of the size of the angle of rotation. This finding complements discoveries from mental scanning, and shows that images not only possess a structure that reflects the object’s structure in an analogous fashion, but also that images are transformed in a manner analogous to the way actual objects are perceived or manipulated. A remarkable fact is that people who exhibit such chronometric patterns in mental scanning or mental rotation experiments are not at all aware of these relationships. They do seem to realize how useful images can be in daily tasks, but they have no intuitive perception of the intimate mechanisms of mental imagery.

5. Conclusions

Like any psychological event accessible to introspection, images can be described by people in terms of their content, vividness, clarity, and degree of detail. Researchers obviously favor objective assessments of internal events, through the use of indicators expected to correlate with described images. Data that provide information about the neural structures that are involved when mental images are generated are even more valuable. A particular advantage of this approach in recent years is that it has allowed researchers to uncover the many similarities between imagery and perception. In this respect, behavioral and neuroimaging studies have progressed hand-in-hand in an especially productive manner.

An important objective of research on imagery is to account for the relationships between the structural properties of images and how they function when they are brought into play in cognitive activities. The assumption is that images draw their functional effectiveness from the properties that they share uniquely with perceptual events. Unlike other, more abstract, forms of representation, images contain information structured analogously to perceptual information, and this gives them particular adaptive value. Imagery provides representations that allow individuals to retrieve information in the absence of the objects that they evoke, and so to process objects that are temporarily or definitely out of sight. The fact that the processes that are applied to images exhibit similar patterns to those of the perceptual processes gives them an obvious cognitive advantage.

To summarize, mental imagery is not unrelated to the other cognitive functions. In particular, it is intimately interconnected with perception, from which it derives its content, and for which it is a valuable functional substitute in many types of cognitive activity.


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