Free Download Sign-up Form
* Email
First Name
* = Required Field

Mind Your Head Brain Training Book by Sue Stebbins and Carla Clark
by Sue Stebbins &
Carla Clark

Paperback Edition

Kindle Edition

Are You Ready to Breakthrough to Freedom?
Find out
Take This Quiz

Business Breakthrough CDs

Over It Already

Amazing Clients
~ Ingrid Dikmen Financial Advisor, Senior Portfolio Manager

~ Mike M - Finance Professional

Social Media Sue Stebbins on Facebook

Visit Successwave's Blog!

Subscribe to the Successwaves RSS Feed

An Introduction to the Science and Philosophy of Mental Imagery

Nigel J.T. Thomas

1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Page 1


Mental imagery, often informally described as "seeing in the mind's eye", "visualization", etc., is quasi-perceptual experience: it significantly resembles perceptual experience, but occurs in the absence of the appropriate perceptual stimuli.

Imagery is not only associated with fantasy and the imaginary, but also, and perhaps more importantly, with prototypically cognitive functions such as memory, perception, and thought. Although imagery occurs in all sensory modes, most work in philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science has (perhaps regrettably) concentrated upon visual imagery.

1. Imagery before cognitive science

§1.1 The philosophical tradition 
The classical Greek philosophers set the stage for subsequent discussions of imagery. Plato speaks (metaphorically) of an inner artist painting pictures in the soul (Philebus39c), and suggests that memory might be analogous to a block of wax into which our perceptions and thoughts stamp impressions (Theatatus 191c,d). Aristotle endorses this wax impression model of memory, and describes this impression as a sort of picture (De Memoria 450a,b). He introduced the notion of a mental faculty of imagination, allied to perception, and responsible for producing and recalling imagery (De Anima III.iii). Aristotle was the first systematic cognitive theorist, and he gave imagery a central role in cognition. He asserts that "The soul never thinks without a mental image" (De Anima 431a 15-20), and maintains that the representational power of language is derived from imagery, spoken words being the symbols of the inner images (De Interpretatione 16a; De Anima 420b). In effect, for Aristotle, images play something very like the role played by the more generic notion of "mental representation" in modern cognitive science. This was almost universally accepted in the philosophical tradition, even by non-Aristoteleans, up until the 20th century. With certain qualifications and exceptions (most significantly the "clear and distinct ideas" of Descartes' epistemology), the "ideas" that played such a large role in philosophy and cognitive theory from the 17th through the 19th century are direct descendants of Aristotle's images. Hume, for example, explicitly identifies ideas as images (as does even Descartes in psychophysiological contexts).

§1.2 Early experimental psychology and "imageless thought" 
Imagery played a large role in early experimental psychology (which, especially in Germany where it first flourished, was practiced as a branch of philosophy). Wilhelm Wundt, "the father of experimental psychology", founded the first psychological research and teaching laboratory in 1876, and imagery played essentially the same pivotal cognitive role in his theories (and those of most of his many students and imitators) that it had played for the philosophers of former ages.

However, from about 1901 Oswald Külpe and his students at the University of Würzburg directly challenged these assumptions. Experimental subjects in Würzburg were asked to provide introspective reports of the contents of their consciousness as they performed specified cognitive tasks. The introspectors (often Külpe himself, or other members of his research team) frequently claimed not to experience imagery, but rather "imageless thoughts", conscious contents without any sensory or perceptual quality. In response, Wundt sharply criticized the introspective methodology of the Würzburg experiments, whilst Titchener, Wundt's leading disciple in America, reported that in his laboratory, similar introspective experiments always evoked imagery (not necessarily visual), producing no evidence whatsoever for conscious imageless thoughts. ("Thinking in words" is plausibly regarded as a form of auditory or vocal-kinaesthetic imagery (Paivio, 1971).)

The bitter and irresolvable controversy that arose led to a reaction by which introspective methods became thoroughly discredited amongst the majority of experimental psychologists, and the notion of mental imagery fell out of intellectual favour. J.B. Watson, who inaugurated the very influential Behaviorist movement in psychology, questioned the scientific reality of consciousness in general, and imagery in particular. Between about 1920 and 1960, imagery received minimal scientific attention. The question of the reality of conscious imageless thoughts was left unresolved, and it remains so today (Thomas, 1989; Heil, 1998; Mangan, 2001).

§1.3 Twentieth century philosophy 
Amongst philosophers, few questioned the actual occurrence of quasi-perceptual experiences, and imagery continued occasionally to be discussed. However, few 20th century philosophers accorded it anything like the theoretically central position it once enjoyed. The analytical philosophy movement (that arose in the early 20th century, and that still deeply influences most English speaking philosophers) originated from the hope that philosophical problems could be definitively solved through the analysis of language, using the newly invented tools of formal logic. It thus treated language as the fundamental medium of thought, and several of the leading figures of the movement (notably Frege, Wittgenstein, and Schlick) argued strongly against the traditional view that linguistic meaning derives from images in the mind. (For a brief, though critical, summary of the main arguments see Thomas (1997a) and §3.2 below.) These arguments were widely accepted, and imagery was relegated to the sidelines of philosophy. It no longer seemed to have a vital functional role to play in the workings of the mind.

In his seminal The Concept of Mind (1949) analytical philosopher Gilbert Ryle set out to refute what he called "Descartes' Myth": the notion that the mind is somehow a special arena distinct from the physical world, populated by mental (non-physical) objects. Ryle thus vigorously attacked the notion of a mental image as a "picture in the mind", and suggested instead that what people call "imagining", "picturing in the mind's eye", and so forth, would be better understood as akin to pretending (to oneself) to see something. Ryle also questioned whether we really have a coherent, unitary concept of imagination, and it remains controversial whether imagery is really relevant to other notions traditionally associated with imagination, such as creativity (White, 1990; Brann, 1991; Thomas, 1997b, 1999).

Working in the rival phenomenological philosophical tradition, Jean-Paul Sartre (1948) also questioned the cognitive role of imagery and the notion of mental pictures. He argued that an image "teaches nothing", because any information it contains must have been put there by, and thus have already been in the mind of, the imaginer. Sartre stressed the intentionality of imagery, the fact that an image is always an image of something (perhaps something nonexistent), but he insisted that an image is not a thingin the mind. Although neither Sartre nor Ryle seems to have intended to deny the reality of quasi-perceptual experience, this may not always have been clear to their audience, and their work surely contributed further to the decline of interest in imagery in both analytical and phenomenological traditions. After this, and before the rise of cognitive science, the rare philosopher who wanted to insist on the importance of imagery, perhaps even its very existence, was noticeably on the defensive (Price, 1953; Hannay, 1971; Casey, 1976).


1 | 2 | 3 | 4

We Make it Easy to Succeed
Successwaves, Intl.
Brain Based Accelerated Success Audios

Successwaves Smart Coaching Audio