Scientific attention to mental imagery dates to the 19th century when Francis Galton (1880) prompted subjects to form mental pictures as visual representations of absent objects. Galton noted that some people can provide detailed images, whereas others cannot conjure mental pictures at all. The advent of visualization techniques starting as early as the 60s still begs the question as to whether mental imagery harnesses the power to improve human overall well-being (Pearson, Naselaris, Holmes, & Kosslyn, 2015; Rosario & Leite, 2015) and mastery level performance (Slimani, Chamari, Boudhiba, & Chéour, 2016; Weller, 2016). Today, mental imagery of heightened interest in psychology, especially in cognitive science and neuroscience. Highlighting both the contemporary relevance and limitations of mental imagery will help researchers and practitioners develop a better understanding of its pivotal role in the human experience.
Mental imagery or the mind's eye (Lang, 2016), relates to perceptual experience. Reflective of perceptual experience, mental imagery occurs in the absence of physical stimuli (Rosario & Leiete, 2015). Mental images are prompted by working memory cues (Nęcka, Żak, & Gruszka, 2016) insofar as they function as mental representations that bear intentionality (Bourget, 2017). Although the longstanding view of visual imagery was that it emerged from the presence of actual mental images residing within the mind, body or spirit, the contemporary view has largely dismissed this attitude.
Recalling the behaviorist mindset of John Watson (1913), the earlier part of psychological science included skeptical attitudes towards mental representations (Digdon, Powell, & Harris, 2014). A resurgence of interest in imagery emerged with the development of cognitive perspectives around the 60s, whereby the school behaviorism was replaced with mental paradigms and cognitive frameworks.
More recently, neuroscience has demonstrated that mental imagery corresponds with cognitive processes at the neural level. Studies that use brain imaging techniques indicate that humans can recall from imagery without directly referring to substantiating elements. Remembering is a key capacity that allows one to think about events and experiences outside of the present environmental context (Nęcka., et al. 2016; Squire & Dede, 2015). As such, mental life is not necessarily drawn from the immediate, external world.
Emerging literature in cognitive science and neuroscience sheds light on neural status and its relevance to mental imagery. Given that emotions have a profound impact on cognitive states (Buttigieg, Duffy, & Altmann, 2016) and individual differences underlie mental imagery due to its subjective nature (Parra, 2015; Rosario & Leite, 2015), developing a better understanding of the link between emotional imagery, personal experience and neural mechanisms will spur more effective mental imagery techniques.
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