by Nigel J.T. Thomas.
This version ©2013, Nigel J.T. Thomas.
The final unexpanded version of this article was published in the Encyclopedia
of Consciousness (Volume 2, pp. 445-457), William P. Banks (Ed.), Oxford: Academic Press/Elsevier,
2009 (Both both print and online versions ©Elsevier,
2009). This expanded, web-only version, self-published online in January 2013, is based
upon the penultimate draft of the published version, but adds extensive citations and notes.
If you would like a PDF reprint of the article as published, please email me. Click here to view the version, that was previously available at this URL, i.e. the penultimate draft of the published version, as given here, but without the citations and note indices that have now been added on this page.
Defining Imagery: Experience or Representation?
Historical Development of Ideas about Imagery
Subjective Individual Differences in Imagery Experience
Theories of Imagery, and their Implications for Consciousness
Differences from the published version
As is common with commissioned pieces like this, there were some editorial restrictions on how this should be written and formatted. The title and topic were given to me, and if I had had my way I would not have restricted myself to just visual mental imagery, but would have tried to explicitly cover imagery in other sense modes too. I believe that all sensory modes of imagery are important in cognition and in our experience, and that our consciousness of imagery in all modes should, and can, be understood within the same theoretical framework. That said, however, visual imagery has been studied far more, and thus is better understood, than imagery in any other mode, so it is not inappropriate to make it the main focus of discussion.
But quite apart from this, the editorial policies of the Encyclopedia of Consciousness meant that not only was I held to a quite strict length limit, and unable to use footnotes (or italics, for some reason), but, more importantly, I was not permitted to give any citations within the text. In my opinion, the latter was an unfortunate and inappropriate restriction for an article dealing with this sort of controversial subject matter (I protested to the editorial staff, but to no avail). The "Further Reading" list that I was mandated to include in no way compensates for the lack of appropriate in-text citations (and, frankly, is not very satisfactory). This is because the literature explicitly devoted to the problems of understanding imagery as a conscious phenomenon is meager indeed. Most of the more important and influential ideas about the subject are not to be found in works principally or even largely concerned with the issue itself, but, rather, in brief passages, or sometimes just as implicit assumptions, within works whose main focus lies elsewhere. In my view, the published article would have been much more useful to readers if I had been able to provide copious citations. Because of this, I have added extensive citations to this web version of the article. I also include notes in which I justify, qualify, or further explain assertions made in the main text, but which I did not have the space to defend or elaborate upon appropriately in the version for publication (most of the citations are actually given in the footnotes). The indicies on this page (numerical, links in square brackets, thus:) are linked to the appropriate notes on a separate web page. All the added citations within the main text on this page appear in dark green, to distinguish them from the black text of the penultimate draft of the published version. Although the published version was peer reviewed (and this penultimate draft does not differ from it in any significant detail), the additional material here (notes and citations) has not been.
You should look up the citations in the Supplementary Bibliography, not in the Further Reading list (although in some cases the same work may appear in both lists). Cited works by Aristotle and Plato are not listed in the bibliography, but can be checked in any good modern edition of their works.
Note, also, that words in the text that are blue (but not underlined) will pop up a definition from the glossary when the mouse pointer is over them. Links to notes have been omitted from these pop-up glossary items, because they would be unclickable. However, the glossary also appears here at the end of the article, and I have added some notes to that version. In the version of the article published in the Encyclopedia of Consciousness, the glossary appeared at the beginning. - N.J.T.T. January, 2013.
For most people visual mental imagery is a common, frequent experience (Galton, 1880; Betts, 1909; Doob, 1972; Marks, 1999; Thomas, 2010 §1). We often recall past events, or imagine possible ones, by forming mental images. Our dreams may also consist largely of mental imagery. Indeed, many philosophers and psychologists have held that, together with immediate perceptual experience, imagery makes up the entirety of consciousness (although clearly not just visual imagery, but also imagery in other sense modes, especially inner speech, auditory or vocal-motor imagery of spoken words). If we are to fully understand consciousness, we will certainly need to understand mental imagery.
Philosophers have studied mental imagery for many centuries, experimental psychologists have studied it for well over a hundred years, and more recently it has attracted the attention of cognitive scientists and neuroscientists, but many basic questions still remain unresolved (Thomas, 2010). There is controversy not only over what cognitive and neural mechanisms are responsible for imagery, but also over its function (if any) in cognition. Some regard mental imagery (or some closely related notion, such as "perceptual symbols" or "image schemata") to be the necessary vehicle for all thought; some regard it as important only for certain types of cognitive task (such as judging spatial relationships); and yet others regard it as a functionally insignificant conscious epiphenomenon of the unconscious cognitive processes that really constitute our thinking.
Like percepts, mental images bear intentionality (J.T.E. Richardson, 1980; Harman, 1998; Thomas, 2010 §1.3). That is to say, they are always images (or percepts) of something or other, of some (real or imaginary) "object." (Some philosophers (e.g., Searle, 1992) regard intentionality and consciousness as very closely related phenomena.) However, unlike percepts, images occur in the absence of their object. You cannot perceive a cat when no cat is present, but you can imagine a cat (or any other perceptible thing) at any time. Furthermore, (mistakes aside) you cannot perceive a cat to be other than where and how it actually is, but, whenever you want to, you can imagine (i.e., form an image of) a cat as anywhere, or in any condition. Images thus seem well suited to function as mental representations, allowing us to think of things as they currently are not, and thus to recall the past, plan for the future, fantasize about the unreal, and speculate about the unknown (cf. Addis et al., 2007; Szpunar et al., 2007). Since ancient times, this has generally been believed to be their cognitive function (Thomas, 2010).
Mental imagery is commonly defined as a form of experience: quasi-perceptual experience, experience that subjectively resembles the experience we have when we actually perceive something (Thomas, 1999b, 2003, 2010; cf.: McKellar, 1957; A.Richardson, 1969; J.T.E. Richardson, 1980; Finke, 1989; Ishai & Sagi, 1995). This implies that we are unlikely to be able to understand imaginal consciousness unless we understand perceptual consciousness (and perhaps vice-versa). Unfortunately, we do not yet have such an understanding (or, at least, one that is generally agreed upon). It also, however, implies that imagery is always and necessarily conscious: if something is not consciously experienced it cannot be mental imagery.
If, on the other hand, mental imagery is defined as being a form of mental representation, as some contemporary cognitive theorists suggest (e.g., Dennett, 1978; Block, 1983; Kosslyn, 1983; Kosslyn et al., 2006), the tight conceptual linkage between imagery and consciousness is broken, and it becomes conceivable that images (imaginal representations) might sometimes play a role in cognition without our being consciously aware of them. There is some evidence suggesting that this does indeed occur. For instance, experimental studies of verbal memory have found that nouns for which it is easy to think of a corresponding image (mostly words for concrete things, such as "dog," "ship," or "skyscraper") are more readily remembered than nouns for which it is difficult to think of an image (mostly abstractions, such as "truth," "nation," or "size"). However, this mnemonic effect of "imagability" seems to occur quite regardless of whether any relevant images are actually consciously experienced (or, at least, of whether the subjects report or recall experiencing them). One interpretation of this finding is that image representations may be spontaneously evoked by the concrete words, and may play a role in making these words more memorable, even when they do not rise to consciousness (Paivio, 1971, 1983, 1991).
Unlike the experiential conception of imagery with which we started, this representational conception suggests that we might be able to understand the nature and function of imagery without giving any attention to the fact that it is (at least sometimes) consciously experienced, and, in fact, most empirical and theoretical cognitive science research on imagery over the past few decades has proceeded on that assumption. The problem of the imaginal consciousness has, very largely, been ignored or set aside, while questions and controversies about its representational function (and, more recently, its neural instantiation) have been pursued enthusiastically. Furthermore, little if any attention has been given to the question of why we should be conscious of some of our image representations and (supposedly) not others (Baars, 1996).
But in any case, imagery probably cannot be satisfactorily understood purely in terms of its representational function. It is difficult or impossible to differentiate it from other forms of actual or possible mental representation, without either, on the one hand, begging some very controversial questions about its nature (about whether, for example, the relevant representations are somehow picture-like), or, on the other hand, appealing to the experiential conception of imagery. We could (and perhaps should) say that mental images are just those mental representations whose presence to mind has the potential to give rise to quasi-perceptual experiences. If so, however, the representational conception of imagery becomes conceptually dependent upon the experiential conception, and we cannot even begin truly to understand imagery unless we take its conscious nature into account (Thomas, 2010 §1.1).
Contemporary scientific controversies about mental imagery by no means turn entirely on matters of empirical fact. Disagreements turn largely upon conceptual issues, and upon differing ideas about what questions a theory of imagery most needs to answer. For example, is it crucial to consider the conscious and intentional nature of imagery when we seek to understand its cognitive mechanisms and functions, or are such considerations irrelevant and distracting? An awareness of the historical contexts from which the various contemporary research programs emerged is indispensable in understanding and adjudicating between such differing perspectives.
Scholars disagree as to whether ancient thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, whose works contain the earliest known discussions of cognition, had anything like our modern concept of consciousness (see Thomas, 2006). However, it is clear that they did have the concept of mental imagery. Plato (Theatetus 191c,d) tentatively suggests that memory might be analogous to a block of wax into which our perceptions and thoughts stamp impressions (i.e., memory images); he also speaks, metaphorically, of an inner artist who paints pictures in the soul (Philebus 39b,c), and suggests that imagery may be involved in the mechanisms by which the rational mind exerts its control over the animal appetites (Timaeus 70d-72c).
However, it is Plato's successor Aristotle who provides the first systematic account of the role of imagery in cognition. In Aristotelian psychological theory, images play much the same role that the rather broader notion of mental representation plays in modern cognitive science. He held that mental images play an essential role in memory and thought: memory is the recall to mind of images of past events (see De Memoria et Reminiscentia, and Sorabji, 1972), and "It is impossible to think without an image" (De Memoria 450a 1; cf. De Anima 431a 15-20 & 432a 8-12). He also held that images underpin the meaningfulness of language (De Interpretatione 16a 5-9; De Anima 420b 29-32; Modrak, 2001), and play a key role in motivation (see De Anima 431a; also, McMahon 1973; Nussbaum, 1978). Were it not for mental images, he thinks, our speech would be empty noise, like coughing, and something could only excite our desire or fear while it was actually present to our senses. However, a mental image of the desired (or feared) thing enables us to think about it in its absence, and thus can sustain our motivation to obtain or avoid it at other times. Aristotle also posits a mental faculty, phantasia (usually translated as "imagination"), that is closely allied to (or perhaps even structurally identical with) the general faculty of sense perception, and is responsible for creating our mental images. Some suggest that this faculty amounts to his conception of consciousness (Modrak, 1981a; Kahn, 1966; see also Thomas, 2006).
In the wake of Aristotle's work, through later antiquity and the middle ages and into the era of modern philosophy, images continued generally to be seen as the principal vehicles of mental content (Thomas, 2010 §2.2 & sup., §2.3). In the work of Descartes and his successors the mind was explicitly understood as conscious, and the contents of consciousness were known as "ideas." Descartes himself seems to have at least two distinct concepts of "idea." What he calls a "clear and distinct idea" is a direct (perhaps propositional) mental grasp of the essence of something. It exists within consciousness itself, but is not an image. However, he also hypothesizes that when we see, imagine, or remember something previously seen, a pictorial image is formed deep within the brain (on the surface of the pineal gland) (Descartes, 1664). Such images, which he also quite explicitly calls ideas, do not exist within the mind as such (since, for Descartes, the conscious mind is immaterial, and distinct from the brain), but they are somehow presented to the mind and are the immediate causes of our conscious perceptual, memory, and imaginative experiences.
The British Empiricist philosophers' concept of "idea" seems to combine aspects of both of the notions found in Descartes. Although some scholars today question whether John Locke really believed ideas to be picture-like (e.g., Yolton 1956, 1996; Chappell, 1994; Lowe, 2005), it is natural to interpret him as thinking so (White, 1990; Ayers, 1991; Thomas, 2010 §2.3.3), and there is little room for doubt that his Empiricist successors, most notably Berkeley and Hume, conceived of ideas as images (Thomas, 2010 §2.3.3). Hume distinguishes "impressions" (i.e., percepts) from "ideas" that arise from the memory or the fancy, but he thinks that these differ only in the intensity with which we experience them, and he seems to conceive of all visual impressions and ideas as consciously experienced, picture-like images (Hume, 1740, 1748). Unlike the image-ideas of Descartes, however, for the Empiricists image-ideas are themselves entirely mental, and exist only inasmuch as we are conscious of them. Indeed, Hume's so called "bundle" theory of the mind suggests that these images actually constitute consciousness: the mind is nothing but a bundle of impressions and ideas (Hume, 1740 I.IV.VI).
Although it certainly had its critics, this Empiricist conception of mind continued to be influential up to, and beyond, the emergence of scientific psychology in the late 19th century. Pioneering experimental psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt in Germany and William James in the U.S.A. thought of psychology as the study of consciousness and of the images (and emotional "feelings") that populate it (Thomas, 2010 §3.1 supps.). However, in the early 20th century a group of psychologists based in Würzburg in Germany, led by Oswald Külpe, reported that systematic introspection of thought processes under controlled laboratory conditions had led them to recognize that, as well as images, the mind also contains "imageless thoughts." These were, supposedly, conscious experiences (they had been discovered by introspection after all) and cognitive (they were evoked during reasoning, and were not merely emotional feelings), but, unlike imagery, they had no sensory character (Thomas, 2010 §3.2).
These claims proved extremely controversial. Some psychologists, such as Wundt, argued that the introspective methodology employed by the Würzburg psychologists was inherently unscientific and unreliable. Others, such as Edward Titchener, argued that competently conducted introspective investigations revealed no evidence of imageless thoughts (Titchener, 1909). The "imageless thought debate" that ensued proved to be irreconcilable. However, no party to this debate was claiming that thought in general is imageless; rather, the point at issue was whether any non-imaginal, but nevertheless conscious, thoughts actually exist. Although the factious arguments about this have long since died down, the issue has never truly been resolved (Thomas, 2010 §3.2). Some people still hold (although perhaps more often as an implicit assumption, rather than an explicitly defended view) that all the cognitive contents of consciousness have a sensory character, either as actual sensations or percepts, or else as mental images; others hold (again, often implicitly) that there are also non-sensory conscious thought contents. These are sometimes referred to as states of "fringe consciousness," and may be described as "feelings" of, for example, "familiarity," "unfamiliarity," "rightness," "wrongness," etc. (Mangan, 2001; Ellis, 1995).
Historically, however, the upshot of the deadlock of the imageless thought debate was a general discrediting of introspective methodologies in psychology, and even of the very idea that consciousness could be studied scientifically (Danziger, 1980; Thomas, 2010 §3.2 supp 1., supp. 2). John B. Watson argued that consciousness was an inherently unscientific notion, and, as a central plank of this argument, questioned the very existence of mental imagery (Watson, 1913a,b; Thomas, 1989; Berman & Lyons, 2007). He urged that psychology should be reconceived as the study of behavior rather than the study of consciousness, and the Behaviorist movement that he instigated came to dominate the field for the next several decades (very roughly, from about 1920 to about 1960) (Hebb, 1960; Gardner, 1987; Mandler, 2007). Few, if any, of the Behaviorist psychologists who succeeded Watson went quite as far as he did toward denying the reality of consciousness and imagery, but almost all of them, in practice, treated them as beyond the reach of science (Thomas, 2010 §3.2 supp. 2). During the same period, the rise of the analytical philosophy movement (with its emphasis on formal logic and language as the keys to understanding knowledge and the mind), and particularly the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein, also led many philosophers to discount the significance of imagery, or simply to ignore it (Thomas, 2010 §3.3). The upshot was that neither imagery nor consciousness received much serious attention during the Behaviorist era (Holt, 1964; Haber, 1970; Paivio, 1971; Kessell, 1972; Neisser, 1972).
A revival of interest in imagery, however, was an important component of the cognitive psychology movement that challenged and eventually displaced Behaviorism as the dominant psychological paradigm in the 1960s and '70s (Gardner, 1987; Thomas, 2010 §4). New experimental methods for studying imagery were devised that did not depend on purely subjective introspection, and evidence emerged suggesting that imagery plays a large role both in memory (as shown mainly be experiments on verbal memory), and spatial thinking (as shown by experiments on "mental rotation" and "mental scanning") (Paivio, 1971, 2007; Shepard & Metzler, 1971; Shepard & Cooper, 1982; Kosslyn et al., 1978; Kosslyn, 1980). A strong empirical case was built up for the functional importance of imagery in cognition, and a vigorous (and continuing) debate ensued about the nature of the cognitive mechanisms responsible for imagery (Block, 1981; Morris & Hampson, 1983; Grueter, 2006; Thomas, 2003, 2010 §4).
However, there was not a comparable revival of scientific interest in consciousness until the 1990s. As cognitive theories of imagery developed in the 1960s through the 1980s and beyond, only cursory attention was given to the fact that it is a conscious phenomenon (or to the, arguably, closely related fact that it bears intentionality) (Baars, 1996). Even today (the early 21st century), cognitive scientists and neuroscientists often treat imagery purely as a form of representation, and offer no substantive account of how images are able to represent (almost certainly it is not because they resemble their objects (Thomas, 2003 §3.2, 2010§3.3)), or of how they come to be consciously experienced.
Since the pioneering work of Francis Galton in the nineteenth century (Galton, 1880a, 1880b, 1883) there has been a tradition of research into individual differences in the subjective experience of imagery. Galton prepared a questionnaire in which he asked his subjects to recall their morning breakfast table, and to consider "the picture that rises before your mind's eye." They were then asked to comment on a number of subjective aspects of that image, such as its brightness, its clarity, and the distinctness of the colors. One of the best knowing findings of Galton's study is that some small minority of the questionnaire respondents reported that they were unable to visualize anything whatsoever. Unfortunately, no systematic research has since been done on this phenomenon, and the issue remains very poorly understood (although recent research (Brewer & Schommer-Aikins, 2006) has directly contradicted Galton's related claim that scientists are particularly likely to be weak or "non-" imagers).
Subsequent researchers have refined Galton's questionnaire technique in various ways, most importantly, perhaps, by introducing numerical scales along which the subjects can rate the strength of the image attribute of interest. Most often, this attribute is "vividness," but there are also questionnaires that attempt to measure such things as how easily someone can transform their mental images (by asking them to form an image and then change it in some specified way, and then rate the difficulty of doing so), or how frequently they use images of one or another sense mode in their thinking. In the early 20th century there was considerable interest in classifying people into "imagery types" according to which sensory mode of imagery (visual, auditory, haptic, etc.) they preferred (Angell, 1906 ch 8; Fernald, 1912). It was hoped that these "types" might prove to be correlated with other independently measurable aspects of the person's psychological makeup. However, no clear cut pattern of findings emerged (Thorndike, 1914 ch.16; Griffits, 1927).
Perhaps the most extensively and successfully used imagery questionnaire of recent times is the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) devised by David Marks (1973, 1989, 1999). Taking the VVIQ involves being asked to visualize a series of specified objects and scenes and to rate the vividness of each resulting image on a five-point scale ranging from "no image at all" to "as clear and vivid as normal vision." An average score is then calculated.
Clearly research of this sort deals with imagery as a conscious phenomenon. It relies upon the subjects' verbal, introspective reports of their subjective experience. Furthermore, there has been much effort to find correlations between people's scores on imagery questionnaires and their other psychological traits. The results, however, have generally been disappointing (Neisser, 1970; Ernest, 1977; Richardson, 1980; Paivio, 1986 p. 117). Even where reproducible correlations have been found, it has often proven difficult to make much theoretical sense out of them. For example, there is some evidence that vivid imagers (as measured by the VVIQ) remember pictures (color photographs) rather better than less vivid imagers (Marks, 1973; Gur & Hilgard, 1975); however, surprisingly, it has also been found that the less vivid imagers (by the VVIQ again) actually remember specific shades and hues of color better (Heuer et al., 1986; Reisberg et al., 1986). Some research suggests that when people form mental images they have elevated levels of activity in the retinotopically mapped visual cortex of their brain, and that this activity is greater for more vivid imagers (Amedi et al., 2005; Cui et al., 2007). However, other researchers fail to find elevated activity in these areas during imagery (they find it elsewhere in the brain). Perhaps most surprisingly and disappointingly, however, virtually no sign of any correlation has been found between people's vividness ratings and their performance (speed or accuracy) in various visuo-spatial thinking and problem solving tasks, even though, subjectively, such tasks seem to depend on imagery.
There are also a number of conceptual concerns about the validity of questionnaires of this type (see Kaufmann, 1981, 1983). Most obviously, as the rating is necessarily purely subjective, and as nobody can experience another's image, there is no way to tell whether the scales are being applied in a consistent way. Perhaps an image that one person thinks of as "clear and reasonably vivid" another might rate as "vague and dim," simply because different subjective standards are being applied.
Furthermore, most people will probably agree that the vividness of their imagery can vary markedly from time to time, circumstance to circumstance, and image to image: Some memories may come back to us (often for no very apparent reason) as especially vivid images, whereas others (or even the same ones on other occasions) are recalled only vaguely and dimly. Thus it may be that these tests do not measure a person's true capacity for having vivid images, but only, at best, the vividness that their images tend to have under the circumstances of filling out an imagery questionnaire.
Finally, it is unclear quite what "vividness" truly means; whether it is really a well defined, coherent attribute of experience. Perhaps different subjective image features such as (for example) clarity, apparent brightness, level of discriminable detail, stability of the image (whether it can be held in consciousness for a time, or quickly fades), and so forth, in fact vary independently of one another, but tend to get indiscriminately lumped together as "vividness." Some recent research suggests that introspective ratings of certain more fine grained aspects of subjective imagery experience may be more meaningful than simple vividness ratings (Dean & Morris, 2003; Burton & Fogarty, 2003).
There is much controversy in the contemporary scientific and philosophical literature about the underlying nature and mechanisms of imagery. The rival theories fall into three broad classes, each of which have distinctive implications for our understanding of imaginal consciousness:
Because of the vigorous, high-profile dispute (known as the "analog-propositional" debate, or sometimes just "the imagery debate") that flared up between advocates of the first two theory types in the 1970s, and that continues to rumble on even today (see Grueter, 2006; Thomas, 2010 §4.4), picture and description theories have become by far the better known of these theoretical alternatives. Unfortunately, this debate has been conducted almost entirely without regard to the conscious nature (or, indeed, the intentionality) of imagery. Each of the three theory types purports to be able to account for the full range of established empirical facts about imagery, and, in fact, each is flexibly enough conceived that it is likely to prove difficult to choose between them on narrowly empirical grounds. That being so, it seems reasonable that our evaluation of them should look to broader theoretical concerns, such as their respective implications for the theory of consciousness.
Picture theory, as the name suggests, holds that visual mental images may be identified with representations in the mind and/or brain that are in some significant way like pictures, or, at least, that represent things in much the same way that pictures represent things. (Whatever that way may be: Although it is widely believed that pictures represent through resemblance, it does not seem likely that resemblance can be the basis of mental representation. Resemblance is a fundamentally subjective relationship that is recognized when a conscious mind focuses upon certain similarities between things while, at the same time, discounting or ignoring other, equally objectively real dissimilarities. In order to do this, the mind must already be able to represent the things, and their relevant aspects, to itself (Thomas, 2003, 2010 §3.3).)
Picture theory is undoubtedly the oldest and most widely accepted theory of imagery. After all, since prehistoric times people have used pictures as a means of causing one another to have visual experiences of things that are not really there, and the analogy with mental imagery (also experience of things that are not really there) is all too easily drawn. The theory goes back at least to Plato, and some rudimentary version of it seems to be deeply entrenched in "folk" (i.e., lay or "commonsense") beliefs about how the mind works. Indeed, many of the expressions used to talk about imagery in ordinary colloquial language (such as, "mental picture," "the mind's eye," and even "image" itself) seem to be derived from this "folk" version of picture theory. The fact that the theory is embedded in our language in this way can make it difficult to express or understand criticisms of it, or to clearly grasp alternative accounts of the actual phenomena. Nevertheless, many twentieth and twenty-first century philosophers have raised telling objections against it (notably: Sartre, 1940; Ryle, 1949; Dennett, 1969; McGinn, 2004), leading some of them to be accused (quite unjustifiably) of denying that people have quasi-visual experiences (see Thomas, 2010 §3.3, including notes 21 & 22).
However, the picture theory today is not just a folk theory. From the 1970s onward, cognitive scientists, most particularly Stephen Kosslyn, have developed the basic idea of the mental image as an inner picture into a sophisticated and detailed scientific model designed to account for a wide range of experimental findings (Kosslyn, 1975, 1980, 1981, 1983; Kosslyn et al., 1979). More recent versions of this theory hold that the visual mental image is embodied as a spatially extended two-dimensional pattern of neural excitation in the retinotopically mapped visual cortices of the brain (Kosslyn, 1994; Kosslyn et al., 2006). Such patterns, isomorphic to the pattern of optical stimulation on the retinae of the eyes, are known to occur during vision. Kosslyn holds that our mental images are similar patterns, but generated from internal sources rather than sensory input.
This is not the place to review all the alleged empirical shortcomings of quasi-pictorial theory. However, both introspective and empirical evidence suggest a number of ways in which the experience of imagery and the experience of looking at a picture vary. Perhaps the strongest evidence comes from experiments involving pictures that invite more than one interpretation, such as the Necker cube and the duck-rabbit (figure 1). Subjects find it very much harder to see both interpretations in their mental images of these than they do when the picture is physically displayed in front them, and this applies even when the picture is their own drawing, based upon their mental image (Chambers & Reisberg, 1985).
Figure 1: The Necker cube and the duck-rabbit.
Kosslyn maintains that the pattern of neural excitation that (he thinks) constitutes the mental image is only a picture in an extended, metaphorical sense: a "quasi picture." After all, unlike regular pictures (drawings, photographs, projected optical images, etc.), we do not need to see it with our eyes in order to derive information from it, or consciously experience it. The neural excitation pattern is like a picture only inasmuch as it represents spatial relationships within the two-dimensional projection of the represented visual scene by topologically equivalent spatial relationships in the spatially extended pattern of excitation (Kosslyn, 1975, 1980, 1981, 1983). Kosslyn maintains that because his theory does not identify mental images with pictures in the full, literal sense, but only with these "quasi pictures," it avoids all of the many powerful objections that have been raised against naïve "folk" versions of picture theory (Kosslyn, 1980; Kosslyn & Pomerantz, 1977; Kopsslyn et al., 2006). Whether this is so, however, remains controversial (Pylyshyn, 1981, 2002, 2003, 2007; Slezak, 1995; Thomas, 1999b, 2010 §§4.4 & supp.).
Although the modern version of pictorial theory can account for a large amount of empirical data about how people use mental images as representations, its supporters have given very little attention to the question of how it might account for the fact that imagery is (at least sometimes) consciously experienced. There seem to be two basic ways in which this issue might be approached. Either the quasi picture in the cortex might be conscious in and of itself, or, alternatively, consciousness arises when some other, more inward cognitive structure, a "mind's eye" as it were, somehow "quasi-sees" the quasi picture.
The first option, however, runs immediately into the notorious "hard problem" of consciousness (Chalmers, 1995, 1996) in its most intractable form: we really have no idea how a pattern of excitation in part of the brain (excitation that is ultimately nothing but an elaborately choreographed dance of molecules and ions around and through membranes) could possibly be, or give rise to, a conscious experience of any sort, let alone an experience of a spatially extended structure isomorphic to the excited brain region.
In any case, the second option appears to be favored by Kosslyn (1992, 2001). He speaks of (and diagrams) a "mind's eye function" gathering information from the quasi-pictorial image in the brain, and some of his explanations of empirical findings seem to depend upon this idea (e.g., Kosslyn, 1975, 1980 p.6, 2001; Kosslyn & Shwartz, 1977). Perhaps then, just as ordinary visual consciousness arises when people take in visual information with their eyes, imaginal consciousness arises when the mind's eye takes in visual information from the inner picture.
But the "mind's eye" metaphor strongly suggests that the theory commits the homunculus fallacy. To whom might this eye belong if not to a conscious little man inside my head, who experiences the inner world of quasi pictures in a way analogous to that in which I, a whole person, experience the external world through my bodily eyes? Compounding this worry is the fact that, at a formal, structural level (abstracting away from implementational details), Kosslyn's quasi-pictorial theory of imagery looks very like a more detailed version of Descartes' theory of imagery (Thomas, 2003 §3.3, 2010 §2.3.1 & §4.4 & supp.). For Descartes too, mental images are material quasi pictures formed within the brain and consciously experienced not simply because they are there, but because they are somehow "seen" by the soul (Descartes, 1637, 1664). Kosslyn (1983, 2001) makes it clear that he does not intend to follow Descartes in attributing our consciousness of these brain pictures to an immaterial soul (a ghostly homunculus) beyond the reach of science; but although quasi-pictorial theory may not necessarily imply Cartesian dualism, it does seem to be at least committed to Cartesian materialism, the notion that subjective experience depends upon some structure in the brain that (like a soul or a homunculus) acts as a conscious inner spectator of internal representations.
Quasi-pictorialists seem to have two comebacks to the homunculus objection. One is to point out (as Kosslyn has often done (e.g., Kosslyn et al., 2006 p. 41)) that a computer simulation of quasi-pictorial theory has been implemented (Kosslyn & Shwartz, 1977), and that there can be no homunculus (at least of any objectionable sort) within a computer. Unfortunately, however, it turns out that the computer program in question makes no attempt whatsoever to model the conscious nature of imagery. Like most of Kosslyn's work, it is concerned to explore how certain sorts of spatial thinking might be achieved through imagery, via such operations as scanning linearly across a quasi picture, or rotating it into a new orientation. The program performs such operations on internal data structures that are supposed to model, at a functional level, the brain quasi pictures posited by the theory, and it displays its results in the form of actual pictures that are rotated or shifted across the computer's display screen in relevant ways (Kosslyn & Shwartz, 1977). No attempt is made to simulate the hypothesized "mind's eye function," and consciousness, either real or simulated, does not enter into the matter at all unless and until some human operator looks at the screen. It is true that there is no homunculus in the computer, but, inasmuch as the system models consciousness at all, it models it by co-opting a full sized conscious human being to play the homunculus role (Thomas, 2010 §4.4.1).
Not coincidentally, the program also omits to model the intentionality of imagery. The fact that the two-dimensional patterns it produces and manipulates may look like pictorial representations to human onlookers (and were designed to look that way by the programmers) is quite irrelevant to the program's functioning. For the computer, they represent nothing.
The second comeback is to suggest that perhaps cognitive science can render the homunculus and its "mind's eye" innocuous by showing that it can be reduced to a set of computational or neural processes. Quasi-pictorial theory was originally developed in the context of the "information processing" paradigm which dominated perceptual theory at the time (the 1970s), and which still deeply influences the way many cognitive scientists think about perception. In essence, "information processing" theory regards vision as a one way flow of visual information, in through the eyes and then through a series of processing stages in the brain until it is eventually transformed into a representation, or a set of representations, suitable for guiding behavior. (This is an oversimplification, but not, in this context, a misleading one. Developed information processing theories generally call for a significant degree of top-down modulation of the bottom-up flow of information from the sense organs. Nevertheless, the bottom-up flow dominates and drives perception.) A common assumption (usually implicit) is that this final set of representations, this ultimate product of the visual information processing system, is the immediate cause of conscious visual experience.
(Some information processing theorists may prefer to think of visual consciousness not as something attaching to representations, but, rather, as something arising from the workings of the processing system as a whole, perhaps even including the sense organs and the muscles that support behavioral response. However, this position is not open to the pictorial imagery theorist, who necessarily holds that we have conscious experience of inner representations.)
According to quasi-pictorial imagery theory, one of the earlier stages of this visual information processing is the creation of quasi-pictorial representations in the brain. These may be derived from actual present visual input from the eyes (when we are actually seeing), or they may be created from stored data in memory (when we are remembering or imagining), but in either case they must be passed through several more stages of processing in order to extract useful information from them (Kosslyn, 1980, 1994, 2005; Thomas, 2010 §4.4 supp.). It is these further stages that constitute the "mind's eye function." Thus, it can be argued, the mind's eye has a principled and independently motivated role within the broader theory of vision. As scientists are actively investigating and seem to be making progress in understanding the computational and neural mechanisms of visual information processing, this "mind's eye" function is not so much a non-explanatory homunculus as a promissory note drawn against the expected success of an ongoing research program.
But even if information processing theory does provide the right framework for understanding visual perception (and not everyone thinks it does), the output of all the processing is just more representations, instantiated as patterns of neural activity. Once again, it seems that we must say either that these representations are conscious in and of themselves, which brings us smack up against the "hard problem" once again, or else we need another homunculus to read them and be conscious of what they represent. Perhaps this homunculus, also, might be reduced to a further series of stages of information processing, but this would only lead us to the same place yet again, and so on in unending regress. We still do not begin to understand how quasi pictures could be, or could produce, conscious imaginal experiences.
Description theory, whose most important advocate has been Zenon Pylyshyn, began as an attempt to understand how the phenomena of imagery could be fitted into a computational theory of the mind. Pylyshyn holds that the way computers (and, by extension, brains) represent information is necessarily more like language than like pictures. The syntax, and, indeed, the vocabulary, of the hypothetical internal brain language (sometimes called "mentalese") might be very different from that of any language that anyone speaks, but it is language-like in that it ultimately consists of symbolic tokens that represent things in the world in much the same way as the words of a language do, not through resemblance but through some essentially arbitrary correspondence relation.
In the case of "natural" languages, like English or Chinese, this correspondence (which determines, for instance, that the word "dog" refers to dogs) is established by social convention. In the case of humanly written computer programs the external reference of symbolic tokens (when they have one) is set by the programmer. Matters are much less clear when we come to hypothetical symbolic tokens in the brain, and there is great controversy over how, or whether, the "symbol grounding problem" (the problem of understanding how the "words" of mentalese might be able to refer to things outside the brain) can be solved. Nevertheless, much work in cognitive science proceeds on the assumption that a solution is possible.
If the symbolic tokens that comprise computational representational systems represent as words do, then it seems to follow that, by analogy with the way language represents visual scenes, the brain-computer represents visual scenes with descriptions. From this perspective, such mentalese descriptions are the end-product of perceptual information processing, and thus responsible for our perceptual experiences. Of course, we do not experience the descriptions as being descriptions, but, it is assumed, they nevertheless constitute our perceptual experience. If mentalese descriptions of visual scenes are retrieved from memory rather than being the result of present sensory input, or if they are constructed out of bits and pieces of various descriptions in memory, then we have the experience of mental imagery.
Pylyshyn claims that, since descriptions can be partial, incomplete, and can leave out all sorts of information (not only details, but sometimes even facts about the global structure of a scene) description theory can explain the frequently indefinite and ambiguous nature of our imagery better than picture theory can (Pylyshyn, 1973, 1981, 2002, 2003). However, the theory's main motivation is clearly the belief that it better respects fundamental facts about the nature of computational representation.
If anything, however, description theorists have paid even less heed than quasi-pictorial theorists to the question of how images (or, come to that, percepts) come to be consciously experienced. Clearly, we are not aware of mentalese descriptions as such, but the idea seems to be that we can, at least sometimes, be consciously aware of what they represent. Like the quasi-pictorialists, however, description theorists appear to be implicitly committed to the view that mental representations, including the elementary symbolic tokens of mentalese, and the symbol complexes that make up visual descriptions (and, thus, mental images), are physically instantiated as patterns of brain excitation (just as representations in a computer are instantiated as electrical charge patterns in RAM chips and CPU registers). This brings us to exactly the same "hard problem" as before: it seems impossible to conceive how patterns of brain excitation (which, themselves, are reducible to movements of ions, etc.) could be, or give rise to, conscious experience as we know it.
Quasi-pictorial and description theories are both attempts to explain how imagery, quasi-visual experience, might be explained within the context of an information processing theory of perception. They disagree over whether it should be identified with representations from an early or late stage of visual processing, and over the format of those representations (Thomas, 2010 §4.4). The enactive theory of imagery depends upon a quite different way of conceiving of perception, one that was pioneered in the twentieth century by James Gibson (1966, 1979), and is more recently exemplified in "active vision" techniques used in robotics, and the "sensorimotor" or "enactive" theory of perception advocated by J. K. O'Regan and Alva Noë, amongst others (O'Regan, 1992, 2011; O'Regan & Noë, 2001a; Noë, 2004, 2009). Instead of regarding vision as, at root, a matter of information flowing in through the eyes into the brain, and toward some internal center of consciousness, enactive theory regards it as a matter of the visual system actively seeking out and extracting (or "picking up") desired information from the environment (Gibson, 1966, 1979; Thomas, 1999b; O'Regan & Noë, 2001a, Hayhoe & Rothkopf, 2011; O'Regan, 2011). Seeing is not like taking a photograph (even a digital photograph whose file gets passed on to a computer for further processing); it is more akin to performing a series of (many, rapid) scientific tests and measurements on the information-bearing ambient light that surrounds us (what Gibson (1979) called the "optic array") (Thomas, 1999b). Rather than being the passive reception of information, vision (and perception in general) is a purposive process of, as it were, asking questions about our surroundings, and actively seeking out the answers (Ellis, 1995; Thomas, 1999b; Rothkopf et al., 2007; Castelhano et al., 2009). Visual consciousness is the experience of being engaged in this exploratory, questioning, information seeking activity, involving not only the making of the tests and measurements themselves, but also the continual adjustment of our expectations, and thus our exploratory behavior itself, in response to their findings.
Consider how we identify an object by touch. If something is simply pressed against our skin, we can tell very little about it. However, if we actively explore it, moving our fingers around to feel its shape and texture, seeking out corners and edges, squeezing it to assess its hardness, and so on, we can discover a great deal. What we learn derives not simply from the sensations we feel in our skin, but, crucially, from the way those sensations change in response to the purposeful, information-seeking movements of our fingers (Lederman & Klatzky, 1990; Smith et al., 2002). Enactive visual theory holds that vision works in fundamentally the same sort of way, except that the exploratory, information-seeking behavior mostly happens so quickly and automatically that its details are unavailable to introspection (Thomas, 1999b; O'Regan & Noë, 2001a; Noë, 2004; O'Regan, 2011).
Eye movements are perhaps the most obvious (and experimentally accessible) aspect of this visual information-seeking behavior – our eyes constantly, and purposefully, but largely unconsciously, flit rapidly around to take in information from different points of interest – and the enactive theory of imagery finds support in a number of recent experiments showing that the stimulus-specific eye movement patterns produced when a subject examines a complex visual stimulus are (quite unconsciously) re-enacted when the same subject later forms a memory image of that same stimulus.
However, eye movements cannot be the whole story. There clearly are bottom-up, inner representations involved in human vision. For example, the pattern of illumination on the retina does indeed produce a corresponding pattern of excitation in the visual cortex, and this carries information about the scene momentarily before our eyes. From the enactivist perspective, however, such representations are not conscious or even mental in any very meaningful sense (Meijsing, 2006). Quasi-pictorial theory seems to imply that, when we see, these representations are what we are conscious of. Enactive perceptual theory denies this, and holds instead that we are conscious of the actual things out in front of our eyes. Like the optical image formed inside a camera, the excitation pattern of visual cortex carries information about our surroundings, but this only gives rise to visual knowledge and awareness inasmuch as this data source is purposefully explored, searched, and queried. It is this active, exploratory searching that turns the mere passive reception of visual information (something that a camera can do) into true perception.
It is important to note, also, that the particular pattern of this exploratory questioning, and the particular tests and measurements brought into play (both external eye movements and internal data analysis processes), will be quite different when different sorts of things are being looked at. For example, in order to see a cat we would need to go through a set of exploratory actions appropriate to cat-seeing. These might include moving our eyes to focus on the likely location of particular characteristic cat features (pointed ears, gently curving tail, etc.), but will also undoubtedly include purely internal processes whereby further questions are answered by querying the data flowing bottom-up into the brain. The key idea is that there is a specific structured set of exploratory queries, what has been called a visual routine, appropriate to cat seeing (or even Tiddles-curled-up-asleep seeing), and a different set for each other type of thing that we are able to recognize. So, if visual experience arises from the active seeking for, and finding, of information, imagery, quasi-visual experience, arises when we actively seek certain information, and persist in going through the motions of looking for it, even though it is not there to be found. To visually recognize a cat is to run through a specific, cat-recognizing visual routine, and to imagine a cat is to perform (or partially perform) this same visual routine when there is no cat present (Thomas, 1999b, 2003, 2010 §4.5). The experience is different from actual seeing because there is no perceptual feedback from the cat itself (and we must, as it were, force ourselves to go on looking for cat features even though it is becoming ever more clear that we will not find them) but it is similar to real cat-seeing inasmuch as the pattern of perceptual exploration that we perform is similar. Arguably, this reflects the phenomenology of imagery, which is subjectively both like and unlike true seeing. In particular, it usually seems to take much more effort to sustain an image in consciousness for any length of time than it does to simply keep looking at something. From the enactive perspective, to have a conscious visual experience is not to have a representation in one's brain, but to act, and to be interacting with the world, in a certain way. To have imagery is to act in the same sort of way, but to fail to interact. Actions (unlike brain states) have inherent intentionality, just as mental images do: actions are necessarily about, or directed at, something (possibly something imaginary, as when we search for the leprechaun's gold), just as images are always images of something. When I enact my perceptual routine for looking at, and recognizing, a cat, my action is intended to enable me to see a cat, and in a real sense it remains so, it remains cat-directed, even when I enact it knowing that no cat is actually there to be seen. However, to point out that actions have intentionality is not, thereby, to explain how they come to have that intentionality, and to say that mental images are really actions rather than entities (representational brain states) is not, in itself, to explain how they come to be conscious. Much more work needs to be done to make these matters clear. Although it has been argued that enactive (or "sensorimotor") perceptual theory can explain perceptual consciousness, such claims remain very controversial. Nevertheless, the enactive theory of imagery clearly radically reframes the problem of explaining imaginal consciousness. No longer is it (as for quasi-pictorial and description theories) a problem of explaining how a brain state can be a conscious (and intentional) state. Rather the problem is to give a scientific account of the intentionality of action (a problem we face anyway), and then to explain how such action can somehow constitute consciousness. This is, no doubt, a difficult problem, but it is not the "hard problem."
At the time of writing, imagery is still a rather neglected topic within the broader, and growing, field of consciousness studies. This is in rather stark contrast to the importance it was accorded by earlier, pre-Behaviorist students of consciousness (Thomas, 2010 §3.1 supps.). Indeed, the Behaviorist revolt against consciousness, which let to several decades of scientific neglect of the topic, seems to have been fueled, in considerable part, by frustration at the factious and irreconcilable "imageless thought" controversy, and it clearly involved the rejection of imagery quite as much as the rejection of consciousness itself. Perhaps recent students of consciousness have been reluctant to fully engage the topic of imagery because it has already proven so controversial within cognitive science, and because the best-known theories that have been developed in that context do little to illuminate imagery's conscious nature. However, this situation may now be changing, and a developing understanding of imagery may come, once again, to be seen as an integral and essential aspect of our developing understanding of consciousness itself.
In this article, the "hard problem" of consciousness refers to the problem of understanding how a brain state (a spatio-temporal pattern of neuronal excitation, itself reducible to a complex dance of molecules and ions around membranes) could possibly be a conscious experience. Posed this way, the problem is unsolved, and may well be insoluble. It does not necessarily follow that consciousness cannot be scientifically understood, however. The problem may be ill-posed.
A thought that is (i) consciously experienced, but (ii), unlike mental imagery, has no sensory or "perception-like" character. The existence of such thoughts has been controversial ever since the notion was first introduced into psychology in the early twentieth century (Thomas, 2010 §3.2).
The property, possessed by many, perhaps all, mental acts or entities (such as mental images, beliefs, desires, and thoughts in general), of being about, of, or directed at something. The "thing" in question (sometimes referred to as the "intentional object" of the image, thought, or whatever) may be real or imaginary (one may have a thought about a unicorn quite as well as a thought about a horse). This technical, philosophical concept of intentionality is only indirectly (if at all) related to the ordinary language notion of having an intention (to do something), or of doing something intentionally (i.e., on purpose rather than inadvertently).
Quasi-perceptual experience: that is, experience that subjectively resembles perceptual experience, but which occurs in the absence of the relevant perceptual stimuli. It is generally acknowledged that imagery may occur in any sense mode – visual, auditory (including what is sometimes called "inner speech," or "thinking in words"), olfactory, kinesthetic, etc. – or even in several simultaneously. However, visual mental imagery, also colloquially referred to as "visualization," "seeing in the mind's eye," "picturing," etc., has been by far the most extensively studied and discussed.
The hypothetical, innate and unconscious, "language of thought," held by some cognitive scientists to be the symbolic format in which information is represented within the brain, and which the brain, considered as a computer, uses in its computations. It supposedly resembles the languages people actually speak in having a combinatorial syntax and an arbitrary semantics. Clearly we are not consciously aware of our mentalese representations as such, but if they do indeed exist they may be the substrate of the conscious thoughts that we experience as mental imagery and "inner" speech.
Certain visual processing areas of the cortex of the brain, most notably the primary visual cortex (V1), that are structured as (rather distorted and low resolution) maps of the light-sensitive retina upon which light is focused at the back of the eye. Adjacent regions of cortex, in these areas, correspond to adjacent areas on the retina such that, during vision, the two-dimensional spatial pattern of excitation of the cortical neurons corresponds topologically to the pattern of illumination, the optical image, on the retina.
(For the works actually cited in this version of the article, and its notes, see the Supplementary Bibliography, below.)
(Not in the published version.)
Compiled by Nigel J.T. Thomas
This bibliography lists the works cited in the updated version of the main text (above), and in the notes. It does not appear in the formally published version (which lacks both citations and notes).
Links to online copies of items in this bibliography (or pages that give access to them) have sometimes been provided (as have DOIs) when I had the information to hand, and especially when the item might otherwise be difficult to find. Just because a link and/or DOI is not provided, however, it does not follow that the item is not available, for free, on line somewhere. You might be able to find it via Google Scholar, for example. It may be available when you look, even if it was not there when this page was created. By the same token, given the dynamic nature of the Web and the limited time I have available to keep this site updated, I cannot be responsible for dead links. - N.J.T.T.
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