Imagery and the Brain

  • John T. E. Richardson


Mental imagery is above all a phenomenal experience, but our ability to conjure up, contemplate, and manipulate our mental images depends upon structures and processes within the brain. The scientific investigation of the way in which these structures and processes mediate both subjective experience and objective behavior is the province of neuropsychology, and this chapter is concerned with the results of neuropsychological research into the cerebral mechanisms that are implicated in mental imagery. This research has employed a number of different methodological strategies:
  1. 1.

    One approach is to make inferences about the functioning of the human brain purely on the basis of behavioral data obtained from normal, intact individuals. The classic contribution of what might be called “experimental” neuropsychology has been the development of ideas about the representation of language in the brain using procedures that permit the presentation of discrete stimuli solely to one hemisphere. For example, when pairs of stimuli are presented simultaneously to the two halves of the visual field (or to the two ears), it is well known that recognition of the stimulus presented to the right visual field (or to the right ear) is superior if the items in question are verbal, while the recognition of the stimulus presented to the left visual field (or to the left ear) is superior if the items in question are nonverbal. Given that under such experimental conditions each visual hemifield and each ear enjoy privileged access to the opposite hemisphere of the brain, these results are generally taken to confirm the view that the left and right hemispheres have differential roles in the processing of verbal and nonverbal information.

  2. 2.

    In practice, however, experimental methods involving lateralized presentations provide only weak evidence concerning the representation of psychological functions within the cerebral hemispheres. An alternative approach is to carry out online recording of brain activity while subjects are carrying out specific experimental tasks. This traditionally involved electrophysiological measures such as event-related potentials (ERP) or the electroencephalogram (EEG), but recent developments have made available a variety of sophisticated alternative techniques. In principle these can be used with both intact individuals and neurological patients, but for research purposes the subjects are usually normal volunteers.

  3. 3.

    A third approach is that of clinical neuropsychology: that is, the investigation of psychological functions and processes in patients who have suffered actual physical damage to the central nervous system. These fall into three main categories. First, there are cases that result from physical injury to the head. In wartime, traumatic damage is associated with open wounds that are produced by weapons or shrapnel. In peacetime, however, such damage more often takes the form of “closed” head injuries in which the contents of the skull are not exposed. Second, brain dysfunction is also associated with neurological diseases, especially those of a histopathological nature (such as cerebral tumors) and those involving the cerebrovascular system. Third, brain damage may arise as the consequence of surgical treatment intended to alleviate the symptoms of neurological disease. For instance, surgical resection of the temporal lobe may be necessary in order to relieve chronic epileptic or depressive conditions which do not prove to be amenable to other forms of treatment. It should be remembered that patients who have undergone surgical procedures of this sort will also have suffered from neurological disorders of long standing, and there is no guarantee that the area of diseased neural tissue will be confined to the regions that have been removed.



Cerebral Hemisphere Mental Rotation Mental Image Mental Imagery Visual Imagery 
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