Behavioral and Brain Sciences



Mental imagery: In search of a theory


Zenon W. Pylyshyn a1
a1 Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science, Rutgers University, Busch Campus, Piscataway, NJ 08854-8020 zenon@ruccs.rutgers.edu http://ruccs.rutgers.edu/faculty/pylyshyn.html

Abstract

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.



Metrics