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Zenon Pylyshyn

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Jacques Mehler was notoriously charitable in embracing a diversity of approaches to science and to the use of many different methodologies.  One place where his ecumenism brought the two of us into disagreement is when the evidence of brain imaging was cited in support of different psychological doctrines, such as the picture-theory of mental imagery.  Jacques remained steadfast in his faith in the ability of neuroscience data (where the main source of evidence has been from clinical neurology and neuro-imaging) to choose among different psychological positions.  I personally have seen little reason for this optimism so Jacques and I frequently found ourselves disagreeing on this issue, though I should add that we rarely disagreed on substantive issues on which we both had views.  This particular bone of contention, however, kept us busy at parties and during the many commutes between New York and New Jersey, where Jacques was a frequent visitor at the Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science.  Now that I am in a position where he is a captive audience it seems an opportune time to raise the question again.

I don’t intend to make a general point about sources of evidence.  It may even be, as Jacques has frequently said, that we have sucked dry the well of reaction-time data (at least in psycholinguistics), and that it is time to look elsewhere.  It may even be that the evidence from PET and fMRI will tell us things we did not already know – who can foresee how it will turn out? But one thing I can say with some confidence is that if we do not have a clear statement of the question we are trying to answer, or of an internally coherent hypothesis, neither reaction time nor PET nor fMRI nor rTMS will move us forward.  So long as we are engaged in a debate in which the basic claims are muddled or stated in terms of metaphors that permit us to freely back out when the literal interpretation begins to look untenable, then we will not settle our disagreements by merely deploying more hi-tech equipment.  And this, I suggest, is exactly what is happening in the so-called “imagery debate”, notwithstanding claims that the debate has been “resolved” (Kosslyn, 1994).

The historical background to the imagery debate

This essay is in part about the “debate” concerning the nature of mental imagery.  Questions about the nature of conscious mental states have a very long history in our attempt to understand the mind.  Pre-theoretically it has been apparent that we think either in words or in pictures.  In the last 40 years this idea has been worked into theories of mental states within the information-processing or computational view of mental processes.  The so-called “dual code” view has been extremely influential in psychology since about 1970, due largely to the early work of Allan Paivio (Paivio, 1971) (for an early critique of this work, see Pylyshyn, 1973).  Shortly after this renaissance in interest in mental imagery, the emphasis turned from the study of learning and the appeal to imagery as a intervening variable to an attempt to work out the nature of mental images themselves (this work is summarized in Kosslyn, 1980) (for a critique of this later work, see Pylyshyn, 1981).  Led by the influential work of Stephen Kosslyn, researchers investigated the structure of mental images, including their metrical properties.  For example, images seemed to actually have distance, since it took longer to scan greater distance in an image; they seemed to have size inasmuch as it took longer to report small features in a small image than in a large one; the “mind’s eye” that inspects images also seemed to have horizontal and vertical limits and its resolution fell off with eccentricity much as that of the real eye.  In addition it appears that we can manipulate images much the way we can manipulate physical objects; we can rotate mental images (in three dimensions), we can fold them and watch what happens, we can draw things on them or superimpose other images on them or on our percepts, and so on.  Such abilities suggested to researchers that images must have a special form or underlying instantiation in the brain and many researchers proposed that images differ from other forms of representation (presumably “verbal” representations) in that they have spatial properties, are displayed in the brain, and represent by virtue of “depicting” or by virtue of resembling what they represent, rather than by virtue of describing their target scenes.

Throughout these developments I have maintained that we are under a collective illusion (a “grande illusion”, to use the French phrase).  The illusion is that when we experience “seeing an image with the mind’s eye” we are actually inspecting a mental state, a structure that can play a role in an information processing account of mental activity.  I argued that what was going on in these studies is that subjects were being asked, in effect, what it would be like to see certain things happening (a scene being scanned by attention, looking for a small detail in a scene, or watching an object being rotated).  In my critique, I suggested that what was happening in these studies was that people were using what they know about thre world to simulate certain observable aspects of the sequence of events that would have unfolded in the situation being studied.  In other words, I claimed that the experiments were revealing what subjects believed about what would happen if they were looking at a certain scene and not the inherent nature an imagery medium or mechanism.

Such claims and counter claims went on for two decades.  Then in the last few years a new source of evidence was introduced which many people, like Stephen Kosslyn  took to provide (in the words of the subtitle of Kosslyn’s influential book Kosslyn, 1994), “The resolution of the imagery debate”.  Many investigators were persuaded that here, finally, was evidence that was direct and unambiguous and proved that there were images in the brain – actual displays realized as patterns of activity in the visual cortex.  What are we to make of these new results, which have persuaded a large number of researchers of the basic correctness of the picture-theory?  Is it true that we now have concrete evidence about the nature of mental images when previously we had only indirect and ambiguous behavioral evidence?




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