Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa
  • Get access
    Check if you have access via personal or institutional login
  • Cited by 82
  • Cited by
    This article has been cited by the following publications. This list is generated based on data provided by CrossRef.

    Abraham, Anna 2016. The imaginative mind. Human Brain Mapping,

    Fourtassi, Maryam Rode, Gilles Tilikete, Caroline and Pisella, Laure 2016. Spontaneous ocular positioning during visual imagery in patients with hemianopia and/or hemineglect. Neuropsychologia, Vol. 86, p. 141.

    Fourtassi, Maryam Rode, Gilles and Pisella, Laure 2016. Using eye movements to explore mental representations of space. Annals of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine,

    Roseman, Leor Sereno, Martin I. Leech, Robert Kaelen, Mendel Orban, Csaba McGonigle, John Feilding, Amanda Nutt, David J. and Carhart-Harris, Robin L. 2016. LSD alters eyes-closed functional connectivity within the early visual cortex in a retinotopic fashion. Human Brain Mapping, Vol. 37, Issue. 8, p. 3031.

    Wimmer, Marina C. Maras, Katie L. Robinson, Elizabeth J. and Thomas, Charlotte 2016. The format of children’s mental images: Penetrability of spatial images. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, Vol. 13, Issue. 5, p. 582.

    Gentili, R.J. and Papaxanthis, C. 2015. Laterality effects in motor learning by mental practice in right-handers. Neuroscience, Vol. 297, p. 231.

    Kéri, Szabolcs 2015. Dissecting perception and memory-driven imagery by boosting GABA-ergic neurotransmission. Vision Research, Vol. 106, p. 58.

    Nako, Rebecca Smith, Tim J. and Eimer, Martin 2015. Activation of New Attentional Templates for Real-world Objects in Visual Search. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Vol. 27, Issue. 5, p. 902.

    Naselaris, Thomas Olman, Cheryl A. Stansbury, Dustin E. Ugurbil, Kamil and Gallant, Jack L. 2015. A voxel-wise encoding model for early visual areas decodes mental images of remembered scenes. NeuroImage, Vol. 105, p. 215.

    Verbaarschot, Ceci Farquhar, Jason and Haselager, Pim 2015. Lost in time.... Consciousness and Cognition, Vol. 33, p. 300.

    Wang, Lihui and Lawson, Michael J. 2015. Transforming the Future of Learning with Educational Research.

    Akinlofa, Olurotimi Richard Holt, Patrik O’Brian and Elyan, Eyad 2014. The cognitive benefits of dynamic representations in the acquisition of spatial navigation skills. Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 30, p. 238.

    Hargreaves, Ian S. and Pexman, Penny M. 2014. Get rich quick: The signal to respond procedure reveals the time course of semantic richness effects during visual word recognition. Cognition, Vol. 131, Issue. 2, p. 216.

    Martínez, Nathalie Tamayo 2014. Imaginería mental: neurofisiología e implicaciones en psiquiatría. Revista Colombiana de Psiquiatría, Vol. 43, Issue. 1, p. 40.

    Missbach, Benjamin Florack, Arnd Weissmann, Lukas and König, Jürgen 2014. Mental imagery interventions reduce subsequent food intake only when self-regulatory resources are available. Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 5,

    Thomas, Nigel 2014. The Multidimensional Spectrum of Imagination: Images, Dreams, Hallucinations, and Active, Imaginative Perception. Humanities, Vol. 3, Issue. 2, p. 132.

    Albers, Anke Marit Kok, Peter Toni, Ivan Dijkerman, H. Chris and de Lange, Floris P. 2013. Shared Representations for Working Memory and Mental Imagery in Early Visual Cortex. Current Biology, Vol. 23, Issue. 15, p. 1427.

    Frikha, Azza and Khrouf, Lilia 2013. Scaling mental imagery: an application to commercial web sites. International Journal of Consumer Studies, Vol. 37, Issue. 4, p. 401.

    Kurby, Christopher A. and Zacks, Jeffrey M. 2013. The activation of modality-specific representations during discourse processing. Brain and Language, Vol. 126, Issue. 3, p. 338.

    Schenck, Wolfram 2013. Robot studies on saccade-triggered visual prediction. New Ideas in Psychology, Vol. 31, Issue. 3, p. 221.


Mental imagery: In search of a theory

  • Zenon W. Pylyshyn (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 April 2002

It is generally accepted that there is something special about reasoning by using mental images. The question of how it is special, however, has never been satisfactorily spelled out, despite more than thirty years of research in the post-behaviorist tradition. This article considers some of the general motivation for the assumption that entertaining mental images involves inspecting a picture-like object. It sets out a distinction between phenomena attributable to the nature of mind to what is called the cognitive architecture, and ones that are attributable to tacit knowledge used to simulate what would happen in a visual situation. With this distinction in mind, the paper then considers in detail the widely held assumption that in some important sense images are spatially displayed or are depictive, and that examining images uses the same mechanisms that are deployed in visual perception. I argue that the assumption of the spatial or depictive nature of images is only explanatory if taken literally, as a claim about how images are physically instantiated in the brain, and that the literal view fails for a number of empirical reasons – for example, because of the cognitive penetrability of the phenomena cited in its favor. Similarly, while it is arguably the case that imagery and vision involve some of the same mechanisms, this tells us very little about the nature of mental imagery and does not support claims about the pictorial nature of mental images. Finally, I consider whether recent neuroscience evidence clarifies the debate over the nature of mental images. I claim that when such questions as whether images are depictive or spatial are formulated more clearly, the evidence does not provide support for the picture-theory over a symbol-structure theory of mental imagery. Even if all the empirical claims were true, they do not warrant the conclusion that many people have drawn from them: that mental images are depictive or are displayed in some (possibly cortical) space. Such a conclusion is incompatible with what is known about how images function in thought. We are then left with the provisional counterintuitive conclusion that the available evidence does not support rejection of what I call the “null hypothesis”; namely, that reasoning with mental images involves the same form of representation and the same processes as that of reasoning in general, except that the content or subject matter of thoughts experienced as images includes information about how things would look.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Behavioral and Brain Sciences
  • ISSN: 0140-525X
  • EISSN: 1469-1825
  • URL: /core/journals/behavioral-and-brain-sciences
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *