Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Imagining Itself (part III: The Metaphors of Mental Imagery)

Wherever imagination is discussed, either during casual conversation or high-level academic debate, you will almost always encounter mention of some form of mental imagery, whether it be mental representations, mental imagery, visual perceptions, visualisations, visual experiences, representationalism or even, as we have seen: meta-representations. As well as its more recent acquisitions our language has become littered with terminology inherited from centuries-old conceptions of our mental states, and none more so than the application of visual metaphors to the “images” of our imagination. When we are uncertain we might ask “Do you see what I mean”. When we want someone to “envisage” something that we have in our “mind’s eye” we say “picture this.” The prevalence of these terms suggests that vision and visual metaphors play an indispensible role, not just in describing our mental states but in conceiving of the ways in which thought operates.

It is no doubt true that metaphors expand the ways in which we are able to describe the world but it might also be argued that there are instances where the observations we make of ourselves and the world around us are subtly are sometimes radically influenced by the common-sense language and concepts we use to describe them. Some philosophers like the Eliminative Materialists Patricia and Paul Churchland argue that commonplace terms for mental states, even such seemingly incontestable examples as “beliefs” and “desires”, significantly misrepresent our mental life. The Churchland's propose that cognitive science should reject the terminology of “folk psychology” (sometimes known as “common-sense psychology”) as a means to understand and describe the complexities of our cognitive makeup. Others, like the contemporary American philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, take a less radical line which accepts that folk psychology has its uses, so long as we understand its limitations. Dennett introduces the term “Intentional Stance” as a way of clarifying how different attributions of intention may or may not be appropriate depending on how, and in what way, we apply them. For Dennett, folk psychological terms may help to describe the intentions and actions of other human beings and to a lesser extent animals, however, to apply the same concepts (desire or belief for example) to the interpretation of chemical reactions or the behavior of subatomic particles would be to completely misconstrue the processes at work.

As a PhD student, Daniel Dennett studied under the English analytic philosopher Gilbert Ryle whose influential book “The Concept of Mind” (1948) devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of imagination and mental representations. Ryle mounts a formidable critique of the common-sense notion of mental imagery, a critique that has its earliest origins in the advent of behaviourism at the turn of the 20th Century. The behaviourist psychologists as well as several prominent philosophers, notably Jean Paul Sartre, Ludwig Wittgenstein as well as Ryle contributed to a widespread rejection of mental representations as quasi-perceptual phenomena throughout the first half of the 20th century. Only in the 1960’s did the discussion of mental representations begin to resurface, particularly in psychology and then later with the publication of influential studies in linguistics and cognitive science by Noam Chomsky and Jerry Fodor that argued for a reconceptualization of unconscious thought processes, casting them as essentially representational in nature. This in turn paved the way for a resurgence of interest in naïve conceptions of mental imagery as a cognitive equivalent of perceptual experiences.

The pendulum has swung so far back in recent years that it seems to be almost entirely beyond dispute that we do indeed employ mental representations on a regular basis in our thinking, both conscious and unconscious. If I asked you to picture an apple in your mind for instance I’m sure you could quite happily conjure up what would be described as a mental image. Yet there are compelling reasons for doubting this apparently incontrovertible (yet subjective) evidence. Sometimes evidence, even of the most public kind, is easily misinterpreted. For example, just because the sun appears to rise in the morning and to descend below the horizon in the evening this constitutes no proof whatsoever that our world is a motionless sphere at the centre of the universe, even though it was long believed to be so. What appears to be the case and what actually is the case can sometimes be radically different, yet it can be extremely difficult to demonstrate the error of false interpretations on the basis of available evidence. Consider for a moment, how would you go about proving that the earth revolves around the sun? Although Copernicus’ was the first person to suggest the theory of heliocentrism, it wasn’t until the much later work of Johannes Kepler that the errors in Copernicus’ theory could be fully explained and the fact of our  spinning elliptical orbit around the sun finally apprehended.

Unlike the strange trajectories of the planets across the heavens which - prior to Kepler - had proved extremely taxing to calculate and therefore to accurately predict, mental imagery has no publicly available features to which we can point our sophisticated instruments of observation and measurement. All we have access to are the many reports that have accumulated throughout culture and history as well as the evidence of our own experiences, if indeed we can even call them experiences, given the fact that they involve no sensory organs with which to ‘observe’ them.

As we will see in the next post, reports of mental imagery often create as much confusion as insight, not least because they frequently lead to claims that, once tested, fail to deliver any of the richness or accuracy that people commonly attribute to them.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating article, very eager to read the next one! I think a big variable here is the fact that some people, myself included, truly lack the ability to produce mental images. Would you mind if I shared a link to my questionnaire for people who have difficulty producing mental images? It can be found at

I would love to hear your thoughts on how variability in visualization ability leads to confusion as to whether or not it actually exists and how it should be described.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Do you ever have dreams that you remember Kyleh?

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