Mental Imagery

I am going to do a mixed blog/vlog for the next week about my new project, which is on mental imagery and the role it plays in our mental life.

[[[ “Officially” my task was to write something about my previous book, called Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception, but I won’t stick to that because I’m not really a ‘stay on message’ kind of person (alas) and because I’ve done enough blogging about it already (here and here) — also because the new project is much more Brains Blog-like: empirically informed philosophy of mind. ]]]

So here is the plan: I’ll do five mixed media presentations. There is a video of me pontificating plus a sketch of what is covered (something like a handout).

The first entry is about how we should and shouldn’t use the concept of mental imagery.

In the video I consider some definitions of mental imagery in psychology and neuroscience:

  • Kosslyn, Behrmann and Jeannerod 1995, p. 1335: “Visual mental imagery is ‘seeing’ in the absence of the appropriate immediate sensory input, auditory mental imagery is ‘hearing’ in the absence of the immediate sensory input, and so on.”
  • Pearson et al. 2015: “We use the term ‘mental imagery’ to refer to representations […] of sensory information without a direct external stimulus”
  • Perceptual processing that is not triggered by corresponding sensory stimulation in the relevant sense modality.

I offer clarifications about:

  • What is ‘perceptual processing’?
  • What is ‘sensory stimulation’?
  • What is ‘corresponding’?
  • What is ‘the relevant sense modality’?

I make five orthogonal distinctions between different kinds of mental imagery:

  • Visual vs. auditory vs. olfactory vs. tactile (etc.)
  • Voluntary vs. involuntary
  • Localizes in one’s egocentric space vs. localizing in a non-egocentric space
  • Accompanied by the feeling of presence vs. not accompanied by the feeling of presence
  • Conscious vs. unconscious (I see that this is somewhat controversial)

For example: If you close your eyes and visualize an apple, this will be an instance of voluntary, conscious, non-egocentric visual mental imagery that is not accompanied by the feeling of presence.

[Header image via Wiki Art]


  1. Hi Bence,

    Very much enjoying the bvlog format.

    You mention that subjects with aphantasia can perform “all” behavioral tasks that require mental imagery — can you clarify the strength of the ‘all’ here, and/or provide a citation for the curious? I enjoy this newly popular condition, and was first alerted to the fact at a young age precisely by way of my inability to perform a cluster of mental tasks that terminate in behavior.

    Relatedly, it continues to baffle me that most of those self-reporting aphantasia (as in the recently viral post by Blake Ross) go most of their lives without noting behavioral differences. It seems to require that they completely ignore certain patterns of speech (and half of fiction), or that they interpret speakers’ routine use of visual imagery as metaphor, but without any puzzlement as to speakers’ disposition to and capability for such metaphor — which, trust me, we lack!

  2. Bence Nanay

    Hi Wilder, thanks for this. Adam Zeman is the person who does a lot of really cool research on aphantasia (and will do even more soon, as I hear). The problem with label of aphantasia (as Adam would acknowledge) is that it is clearly not a monolithic category. Some of the aphantasia subjects can perform behavioral tasks like mental rotation exactly the way a non-aphantasia subject would. But some others can’t. This major difference between aphantasia subjects didn’t make it to the pop science reporting, alas…

  3. Thanks for the reply, I certainly agree and am sympathetic to the hypothesis that aphantasia implies unconscious imagery, rather than total lack of imagery (incl. unconscious), and also that the former rather than the latter distinction is involved in behavioral differences both between forms of aphantasia and throughout the Galton spectrum generally.

    But that remains motivated reasoning on my part, so I look forward to what evidence Zeman and others come up with, and hope aphantasia continues to increase in philosophic relevance!

  4. Brian New

    Thank you for this, Bence. Really succinct — and informative.

    The idea of non-conscious mental imagery is, of course, especially the thing that raises curiosity.

    In the first instance, I wonder whether a distinction between *non-conscious* and *unconscious* processes will emerge as critical for this topic; and, whether those who will object to the identity of ‘mental’ with ‘un/non-conscious’ phenomena will be led to re-think this position as a consequence of your advancing the various aspects of mental imagery that you begin to do here. Not that this need be part of your agenda!

    Thanks again for the insightful vlog.

  5. Bence Nanay

    Thanks a lot, Brian.
    What do you take the unconscious/non-conscious distinction to be? Something like Rosenthal’s distinction?
    About your second question: maybe not much I can say would convince those who deny the possibility of unconscious mental imagery. But it makes little sense to argue about labels. What I’m interested in is not definitional issues of mental imagery, but the mental process (ie, perceptual processing that is not triggered by corresponding sensory stimulation in the relevant sense modality). And this can be unconscious (whether or not we call it mental imagery).

  6. Renée Bleau

    Hi Bence

    My comment has to do with very close to the end of your vlog -Not sure how you can justify the use of the term “mental imagery” without a reported subjective experience of such (that is, only going on a reading of a brain scan) – and using the term in such a context, seems like an oxymoron to me – as the very meaning of “mental image” implies something which is subjectively experienced, and reported as such … Doesn’t it?

    Your expression “I’m just going to tell you…” seems to suggest that it is not self-evidently the case other wise, I wouldn’t need telling…

    Best wishes Renée

  7. Thanks, Renee, I think if you have a really strong intuition that mental imagery is necessarily conscious, then just take everything I am saying to be about some other mental state, say, mental imagery*. I don’t really care about the label – I care about the underlying mental process.

    By the way, I take it that ‘mental imagery’ is a technical term. There is no clear translation of it In any of the languages I know. I can see how one might have very strong feelings about how ‘mental images’ would be conscious (they are images we ‘see’). But images are different from imagery. In audition, we have imagery, but no ‘images’, strictly speaking. And there are all these Rylean reasons for mistrusting the ‘image’ way of thinking about imagery – something I can avoid with my definition.

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