Return of the mental image (Pylyshyn)

Pylyshyn, Z.W. (2003). Return of the mental image: Are there really pictures in the brain? Trends in Cognitive Science, 7, 113-118.

What, exactly, is a mental image? Picture an apple. Are you looking at an image of an apple in your “mind’s eye,” much in the same way you might be holding a photo of an apple in your hands? Or could it be that you’re simply experiencing fragments of visual and emotional stimuli that gives a sensation of “seeing”?

In this article, the author challenges picture theory, which states that mental images have a picture-like format. One of the most popular pieces of evidence supporting this claim involves the finding that it takes longer to scan over larger imagined distances. However, Pylyshyn contests this line of reasoning, pointing out that all evidence supporting picture theory could also be due to the fact that “when asked to imagine something, people ask themselves what it would be like to see it, and they then simulate as many aspects of this staged event as they can and as seem relevant” (p.113). The author also provides several convincing (and fun!) counterexamples to picture theory — for example, he points out that picturing a Necker cube doesn’t produce the familiar optical illusion effect of flipping perspectives.

Overall, this article made me examine my assumptions about mental imagery and reminded me to remain open to other ways of “seeing things.” :)


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