This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 07 table of contents.

Mental Imagery

Mental imagery can be defined as pictures in the mind or a visual representation in the absence of environmental input. Not everybody can conjure up mental images at will. Sir Francis Galton discovered this in 1883 when he asked 100 people, including prominent scientists, to form an image of their breakfast table from that morning. Some had detailed images, others reported none at all.

What is the easiest way to make visual imagery stronger?

Everybody has mental imagery during dreams, including people who go blind at an early age. Some individuals are capable of deep levels of hypnosis in which they can have visual hallucinations of dreamlike clarity, but this is quite unusual. For most of us, mental imagery during states of wakefulness is faint or difficult to manipulate. The best way to make it more vivid is to imitate the conditions of sleep. When one is relaxed or half asleep, mental imagery can be quite vivid.

What do brain scans show about brain areas involved in mental imagery?

An abundance of evidence from brain scanning research shows that the same areas of the brain used for normal perception are also activated by mental imagery. (Miyashita, 1995). In general, imagination activates some of the same brain areas as normal perception For example, "thinking about a telephone activates some of the same brain areas as seeing a telephone." (Posner, 1993)

Early, important studies of mental imagery came from Roger Shepard of Stanford University and various colleagues. He used computer-generated block shapes similar to these:

One shape is different from the others.

Three of the shapes are the same as each other, only rotated. The fourth is different; it is a mirror image of the others. Can you find the one that is a mirror image? To determine this, most subjects must mentally rotate the figures, much as they would rotate a three-dimensional block model, to see if each matches the others.

Why was the Cooper and Shepard research influential?

Following up on the first experiments with mental rotation, Cooper and Shepard (1973) found that the time required for mental rotations depended upon the amount of rotation. This was a very important finding, because it implied that mental images could be manipulated as if real.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.

Custom Search

Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey