Mental image  

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"It is impossible to think without an image [phantasma]," (De Memoria, Aristotle)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A mental image is an experience that significantly resembles the experience of perceiving some object, event, or scene, but that occurs when the relevant object, event, or scene is not actually present to the senses (McKellar, 1957; Richardson,1969; Finke, 1989; Thomas, 2003). The nature of these experiences, what makes them possible, and their function (if any) have long been subjects of research and controversy in philosophy, psychology, cognitive science and, more recently, neuroscience. As contemporary researchers use the expression, mental images (or mental imagery) can occur in any sense mode, so that we may experience auditory images (Reisberg, 1992), olfactory images (Bensafi et al., 2003), and so forth. However, the vast majority of philosophical and scientific investigations of the topic focus upon visual mental imagery. It is often assumed (e.g., by Aristotle: On the Soul III.3 428a) that, like humans, many types of animal are capable of experiencing mental images. However, owing to the fundamentally subjective nature of the phenomenon, there is little evidence either for or against this view.

Philosophers such as Berkeley, and Hume, and early experimental psychologists, such as Wundt and James, understood ideas in general to be mental images, and today it is very widely believed that images function as mental representations (or mental models), playing an important role in memory and thinking.

Philosophical ideas about mental images

Mental representation

Mental images are an important topic in classical and modern philosophy, as they are central to the study of knowledge. In the Republic, book VII, Plato uses the metaphor of a prisoner in a cave, bound and unable to move, sitting with his back to a fire and watching the shadows cast on the wall in front of him by people carrying objects behind his back. The objects that they are carrying are representations of real things in the world. The prisoner, explains Socrates, is like a human being making mental images from the sense data that he experiences.

More recently, Bishop George Berkeley has proposed similar ideas in his theory of idealism. Berkeley stated that reality is equivalent to mental images — our mental images are not a copy of another material reality, but that reality itself. Berkeley, however, sharply distinguished between the images that he considered to constitute the external world, and the images of individual imagination. According to Berkeley, only the latter are considered "mental imagery" in the contemporary sense of the term.

David Deutsch addresses Johnson's objection to idealism in The Fabric of Reality when he states that if we judge the value of our mental images of the world by the quality and quantity of the sense data that they can explain, then the most valuable mental image — or theory — that we currently have is that the world has a real independent existence and that humans have successfully evolved by building up and adapting patterns of mental images to explain it. This is an important idea in scientific thought.

Critics of scientific realism ask how the inner perception of mental images actually occurs. This is sometimes called the "homunculus problem" (see also the mind's eye). The problem is similar to asking how the images you see on a computer screen exist in the memory of the computer. To scientific materialism, mental images and the perception of them must be brain-states. According to critics, scientific realists cannot explain where the images and their perceiver exist in the brain. To use the analogy of the computer screen, these critics argue that cognitive science and psychology has been unsuccessful in identifying either the component in the brain (i.e. "hardware") or the mental processes that store these images (i.e. "software").

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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Mental image" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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