Notes can be found as interactive webpage at

12: Imagery

Controversies in Cognitive Science #

How is information stored?

  • In analog code (i.e., as a pictorial representation) OR
  • As a propositional code (i.e., descriptive representation)?

Mental imagery #

How Are Mental Representations Stored? #

  • Experiments on mental imagery by Roger Shepard and Jacqueline Metzler in early 1970s spawned the imagery debate
    • Suggested that some types of cognitive information processing involve forms of representation that are very different from how information is represented in, and manipulated by, a digital computer
  • Imagery and rotation studies:
    • Rotate each object on the left to see if it matches the object on the right:
    • Amount of time it takes to rotate a mental image depends on the extent of the rotation

  • One feature of digitally encoded information is that the length of time it takes to process a piece of information is typically a function only of the quantity of information (the number of bits that are required to encode it)

    • The particular information that is encoded ought not to matter
  • But what the mental rotation experiments show is that there are informationprocessing tasks that take varying amounts of time even though the quantity of information remains the same

    • This suggests that mental rotation tasks tap into ways of encoding information that are very different from how information is encoded in a digital computer
      • More specifically, the information may be encoded in pictorial form, similar to the way a map represents a geographical region (analog code), rather than as a description (propositional code)
  • So which viewpoint is correct: analog or propositional?

Research support for analog code (pictorial representation) #

  • Imagery and size:
    • Condition #1: Imagine a rabbit standing next to an elephant
    • Condition #2: Imagine a rabbit standing next to a fly

    “Does the rabbit have two front paws?”

    • People make faster judgments about the characteristics of large mental images than of small mental images; also, they take longer to travel a large mental distance, whether that’s visual or auditory
  • Imagery and interference: Create a clear mental image of a friend’s face
    • Keeping that image in mind, simultaneously let your eyes wander over the scene in front of you
    • Visual imagery activates about 70-90% of the same brain regions that are activated during visual perception
  • Imagery and neuroimaging research: The primary visual cortex is activated when people work on tasks that require visual imagery
    • Visual imagery may interfere with visual perception, and motor imagery with motor images (Kosslyn, Ganis, & Thompson, 2010)
      • Similar findings have been reported for auditory and motor imagery
    • People with prosopagnosia cannot create a mental image of a face

Research support for propositional code (descriptive representation) #

  • Imagery and parts of figures: Form a clear mental image of the figure to the right:
    • Without glancing back at the figure in the previous slide, consult your mental image. Does that mental image contain a parallelogram?

    People have difficulty identifying that a part belongs to a whole if they have not included the part in their original verbal description of the whole

  • Imagery and ambiguous figures: Create a clear mental image of the right figure:
    • Write down what the figure in the previous slide depicted.
    • Then give a second, different interpretation of the figure you saw

    Some ambiguous figures are difficult to reinterpret in a mental image


  • So which viewpoint is correct: analog or propositional?
    • The majority of research supports the analog viewpoint, but some people on some tasks use a propositional code
  • In one study, researchers administered questionnaire to assess whether participants were more visualizers or verbalizers
    • Magnetoencephalography (MEG) found that visualizers showed more activation in occipital region when visualizing famous landmark
    • Verbalizers showed more activation in areas associated with linguistic processing (Nishimura, Aoki, Inagawa et al., 2016)

Neurological Disorder of Visual Imagery #

Aphantasia: Inability to visualize

  • May be congenital or acquired (e.g., brain injury)
  • Some researchers say 2-3% of population may be affected, and many may be unaware of the condition
    • “I thought counting sheep was a metaphor, just like bee’s knees or cat’s pajamas”
  • May be unable to picture loved one’s face or remember directions; even telling someone how their day was can be difficult because they can’t visualize it
    • “It is hard not to feel like a sociopath when you’re lying about how you spent your Monday and you don’t even know why.”
  • When looking at and naming faces, normal regions of brain are active, but when asked to picture people’s faces, facial-recognition brain regions do not become active like they normally would
    • Aphantasia characterizes only voluntary visualizations; the aphantasiacs were still able to have involuntary visualizations (i.e., dreams)
      • Suggests that condition may involve neurological deficits between frontal and visual cortex

Imagery Rehearsal #

Imagery rehearsal/mental practice: rehearsing a task mentally without observable movement in order to learn it

  • Much of the research on visualization or imagery rehearsal/mental practice has focused on skills acquisition and performance enhancement in sports and in surgery (Arora, Aggarwal, Sirimanna et al., 2011)
  • Has also been used to improve musical/dramatic performance, etc.
  • May also improve academic performance

    Middle school students whose families struggle financially are more likely to earn high grades if they have a clear vision of themselves succeeding in school (Duckworth, 2016)

Use in sports and other types of skills training #

  • Many famous athletes have attributed their success to imagery rehearsal, and there is extensive empirical support for its effectiveness
    • Imagery rehearsal can be used not only to perfect routines, but also to work on acquiring flexibility of action in the face of unusual or stressful situations
      • The same neurological circuits are activated and the same type of LTP takes place during imagery rehearsal as during actual physical practice(Avanzino, Gueugneau, Bisio et al., 2015; Filgueiras, Conde, & Hall, 2017)
    • Mental practice has become a standard part of training for Olympic athletes (Blumenstein & Orbach, 2012; Ungerleider, 2005)
  • Ex: University of Tennessee women’s basketball team used imagery rehearsal to increase free-throw accuracy
    • 52% in games following standard physical practice
    • 65% after mental practice (Savoy & Beitel, 1996)
    • Wound up winning the national championship game
    • Players repeatedly imagined making free throws under various conditions, including being “trash-talked” by their opposition
  • To be effective, imagery rehearsal should be a multisensory endeavor, which is why the term “imagery” is now often preferred to “visualization”
  • Visualization is also used in evidencebased psychotherapies, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Stress Inoculation Therapy, which is used to help clients prepare themselves to handle stressful events

“To feel cheerful, sit up cheerfully, look around cheerfully, and act as if cheerfulness were already there.” – William James

Factors influencing effectiveness of visualization/imagery rehearsal #

  • Imagery rehearsal is more effective if preceded by relaxation
  • Imagery rehearsal is more effective when one fully experiences the task, engaging all the senses, rather than merely “thinking about” or watching oneself perform the task
    • The key is to make the sensory experience as vivid and real as possible and to focus on the feelings evoked by the scene, as well as the various details, e.g., how other people are responding to you, etc.
  • Spreading out imagery rehearsal sessions over a period of time is more effective than massing them
  • Experienced performers profit more from imagery rehearsal; beginners profit more from actual physical practice
    • Mental practice works better if the task is easy or well-practiced (Richard Suinn)
  • Study found that imagining yourself studying (and refusing invitations to party instead) is more effective than simply visualizing yourself getting an “A” on the test! (Taylor, Pham, Rivkin et al., 1998)

Possible mechanisms of imagery rehearsal #

  • Neurobiological mechanism:
    • The same neurological circuits are activated and the same type of LTP takes place during imagery rehearsal as during actual physical practice (Avanzino, Gueugneau, Bisio et al., 2015; Filgueiras, Conde, & Hall, 2017)
  • Possible psychological mechanism:
    • Visualization probably works in part by strengthening optimism, which in turn strengthens persistence and effectiveness

“Belief must strengthen the imagination for imagination establishes the will.” – Paracelsus


  • The act of creating a concrete mental image in which we see ourselves as happy or successful reinforces our intentions to behave in ways that help us achieve the image in our heads

    “Images of desirable future events tend to foster the behavior most likely to bring about their realizations”

Other applications of mental imagery #

In psychotherapy #

Cognitive therapy: cognitive rehearsal or practicing a role under conditions that are supposed to represent the real situation

  • Client is asked to imagine going through all the steps necessary to obtain a goal
    • Case of a depressed woman who had intended to take an exercise class the following day
      • When therapist encouraged her to use imagery rehearsal, she realized that she lacked the proper clothes, might not have access to the car, etc.
  • Mental imagery can be a way of seeing and testing radically new ways of behaving and reacting
  • Stress Inoculation Therapy: used to help clients prepare themselves to handle stressful events

Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) for treatment of nightmares

  • Rehearsal redreaming: Research indicates that nightmares can be effectively treated using simple rehearsal of the nightmare and/or rehearsal with an altered ending
    • Reduction in recurrent nightmare of 15 years’ duration after 7 rehearsal sessions in which patient mentally re-experienced the nightmare while saying to himself “It’s just a dream”
    • Recurrent nightmare of 14 years’ duration disappeared after patient relived the dream 3 times while awake, then wrote 3 accounts of the nightmare with “triumphant endings”
  • Dream reentry technique: Imagine yourself back in the dream and determine what else you can do – come up with alternative ways of acting in the dream to effect a more favorable ending
    • Ex: Dream in which dreamer finds himself in a room in which walls are closing in, threatening to crush him. Door is locked.
      • Dream reentry: Dreamer imagines the dream again. He looks around the room and notices that there is no ceiling and climbs out.

Imagery and Marketing #

  • Cable TV study
    • Group 1: Residents were provided with information about benefits of cable television
    • Group 2: Residents were asked to imagine how much more convenient and inexpensive the cable service would be
    • 20% of people in the information condition ended up subscribing as opposed to 47% in imagination condition (Matlin, 1989)
  • Red Cross study
    • Donations to Syrian refugees were 55 times greater in response to:
    • Publication of iconic photo of a child killed vs.
    • Statistics describing the hundreds of thousands of other refugee deaths (Slovic, Vastfjalla, Erlandsson et al., 2017)

In creative arts #

Creativity: art, music, and literature – artists translate their internal images into concrete form

  • Robert Louis Stevenson claimed that he would see his stories acted out before his eyes in a vision and that he merely strove to transcribe them
  • Mozart similarly claimed that he merely transcribed his music which he heard, complete and finished, in his imagination

    “The music of the spheres is always playing – we simply have to tune in to hear it.”