9.3 Mental Imagery: Process & Model

Jan 15, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch9 Knowledge Processes & Models

Why do some people have more trouble than others at visualizing a process, example, or item? In this lesson, you will discover that mental imagery is not an innate talent. We will discuss what mental imagery is, how it works and how to improve one’s skill at it.

In the Mind’s Eye

People often speak of ‘mental pictures’, of ‘visualizing’ something, or of holding something ‘in the mind’s eye’. What do these common terms mean? They all refer to a phenomenon known as mental imagery.

Mental imagery is something the brain perceives, even though that item or scene is not actually present in the environment of the perceiver. It is most commonly associated with vision, but can involve all the senses.

The process by which the brain accomplishes this is really not well understood, and despite the widespread use of figures of speech like those mentioned above, not everyone can naturally invoke mental images.

In one of the earliest scientific studies on the subject, a group of people, including some prominent scientists, were asked to conjure a mental image of a common event: their breakfast that morning. Some were able to describe tiny details, while others failed to develop any image at all. A few, apparently, even denied such a thing as mental imagery was possible and accused others of making their answers up!

Sir Francis Galton, who led this study in 1880, determined after further research that about 5% of people had excellent skill at creating mental images, about 3% had almost no skill, and everyone else fell somewhere in between. In general, he found that women tended to be better than men, children were often better than adults, and the average person on the street was often better than the most brilliant scientist.

Why? Galton was not sure, and to this day, we aren’t quite sure either. It seems to be just a skill like many others, at which some people excel and some don’t.

The Mind-Body Connection

Mental imagery has been recognized for years as having an effect, not only on a person’s psychological state, but on their physical state as well. Again, we are not exactly sure why, but we know it works. Studies have showed that focused efforts at harnessing mental imagery help relieve stress, help people tolerate pain, and promote healing of injuries or surgical wounds.

One of the best-known ways of using mental imagery is to improve performance, especially in fields like athletics and music. Two models are primarily used in this context:

  • applied imagery, where the situation being addressed determines what type of imagery is employed, and the user envisions their desired outcome.
  • PETTLEP, which stands for physical, environment, task, timing, learning, emotion, and perspective, all elements incorporated into every attempt to utilize imagery.

Recent studies show that the areas of the brain activated during the use of mental imagery are the same ones that are activated during actual perception or performance. This may explain in part why mental imagery exercises help athletes and performers; the brain often can’t tell the difference between something imagined and something occurring in reality, so it responds the same in both situations!

How to Develop the Skill

Like improving any skill, mental imagery gets easier and more proficient with practice. The problem is that nobody knows exactly how it works, so exactly how to invoke it is also something of a fuzzy proposition.

Some activities or settings that seem to encourage the forming of mental images include sleep, extreme relaxation, meditation, and hypnosis. Most people, even if they are not able to create mental images when awake, experience them while asleep and dreaming. The states just before and coming out of sleep are good times to practice.

A variety of exercises have been suggested to improve the ability to use mental images. For example, try using positive language to describe what you want to envision, record yourself describing it, then listen in a relaxed state while you work on building an image utilizing all of your senses.

Another technique involves using simple objects as targets, looking at them and then closing your eyes to see how long you can keep the picture.

Lesson Summary

Mental imagery is a scene or object perceived by the brain, even though it is not actually present in the environment of the perceiver. It is most often thought of as visual, but can involve all senses.

Mental imagery affects the psychological and physical well being of a person. It can help with healing and stress, as well as improving performance of athletes and musicians. The two models mainly used are:

  1. applied imagery, where the situation being addressed determines what type of imagery is employed, and the user envisions their desired outcome.
  2. PETTLEP, which stands for physical, environment, task, timing, learning, emotion, and perspective, all elements incorporated into every attempt to utilize imagery.

The way mental imagery works is not well understood, though we know the areas of the brain involved are the same ones involved in actually perceiving scenes and objects. The ability to create mental images varies; some people are very good at it and others very poor. Practice in settings such as sleep, relaxation or meditation seem to help improve ability.

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