9.7 Ronald Finke’s Five Principles of Visual Imagery

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

In this lesson, we delve deep into how humans might conjure images and the fascinating properties these images possess. Based on the work of Dr. Ronald Finke, we detail his five principles of mental imagery with examples.

Thinking About Thinking

People create mental images every day. In fact, you’re probably conjuring one right now, but have you ever thought about the way you think? It might seem like a strange question, but it’s one that cognitive scientists like Dr. Ronald Finke spend their lives trying to answer. Finke’s specialty is how we represent objects and space in our minds, called mental imagery or visual imagery. Let’s explore each of Finke’s five principles of mental imagery in more detail.

Implicit Encoding

According to Finke, implicit encoding is ”information stored unintentionally with other information that allows one to construct a mental image.” It encompasses all the details we remember without having made an effort to remember them.

For example, imagine a place that you visit regularly, whether it’s work, school, or your street. Now, look to your left in your imagination. What details do you remember about what you’ve seen in that direction? Although you may recall a lot of details, you probably didn’t study that place intentionally. You inadvertently collected those details while paying attention to something else.

Perceptual Equivalence

Finke asserts that the ”same type of internal processes are used for mental visualization and visual perception.” We use the same parts of our brains in very similar ways when we think about an image of an object and when we are actually looking at the object.

One study asked people to stare at a blank screen while imagining a particular object. While the participant was distracted and looking at something else, an assistant would change the projection on the screen. The new projection would show a very faint image of an object, so light it was barely visible. If the object was the same one the participant had been told to imagine, he or she could actually see and identify the projected image, even though it was barely visible. If the projection was a different object, however, the participant couldn’t see it. This indicates that our brains, when forming mental images, use many of the same mechanisms involved in actually seeing them.

Imagining and viewing objects involves many of the same processes in the brain.


Spatial Equivalence

Finke tells us that ”the spatial arrangement of the components of a mental image correlates with the way objects and their parts are arranged on or in actual, physical space.” We mentally construct and respond to our mental images as if we were interacting with real objects or spaces. In the implicit encoding example, when you looked to the left in your mental image, did you instantly see what was to the left, or did you imagine turning to or looking in that direction? Studying the scanning behavior of visual perception, or how a person’s eyes move across an image or linger on its parts, researchers found that people generally took the same amount of time to look across an object or landscape as it took them to perform the same task with a smaller photograph of the same object or landscape.

We respond the same way to photographs and our imagined spaces as we do toward real images. As we can’t insert a real landscape for you to practice with, we’ll use these images of the bridges. If you follow the course of the bridge from one side to the other, do you scan it any faster using the smaller image? Would you follow the course of the bridge more slowly if you were looking at the real structure? Surprisingly, most people do not.


Do you take the same amount of time to look from one side of the bridge to the other in both pictures?


Transformational Equivalence

Finke tells us that ”imagined transformations and physical transformations exhibit corresponding dynamic characteristics and are governed by the same laws of motion.” Basically, when we imagine an object and then change it, such as looking at it from a different angle, we use the same mental processes as we would with a real object. The imagined object doesn’t suddenly switch to a different position: We actually imagine it moving to that position with all the intermediate positions in between.

Mentally move the apple from position A to position B.


Structural Equivalence

In this fascinating principle, Finke explains that ”the structure of mental images corresponds to that of actual, perceived objects in the sense that the structures are coherent, well organized, and can be reorganized and reinterpreted.” Let’s simplify this: Finke is telling us that we don’t just imagine these objects according to a variety of independent features such as color, shape, and other detailed components. We imagine these parts in relation to each other.

One study asked participants to mentally visualize an image of boxes after seeing it for a short amount of time. When the participants were first shown the image, half of them were told it had been created by five boxes assembled in a particular configuration. The other half of the participants were told it consisted of two rectangles overlapping perpendicularly. In their attempt to mentally visualize the image, the group told the original image consisted of five boxes took longer to construct the image than the group told it was made of two rectangles.

Five Boxes or Two Rectangles?


Lesson Summary

Mental, visual imagery, is something we use every day, but most people give little thought to how it functions. Cognitive scientists like Dr. Ronald Finke spend their lives thinking about these things. What Finke discovered from his own studies and those of other researchers is that our mental constructs of visual images are far more complex than we might think.

We incorporate information we’ve recorded without ever directly attempting to capture these details. Mental images involve the same cognitive processes used to look at real images. We grant these images the same spatial qualities and dynamic characteristics we would expect from real objects. We even take longer to visualize things we believe are more complex.

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