PDF A History of Modern Experimental Psychology: From James and Wundt to Cognitive Science (MIT Press)

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However, in the 20th century vigorous objections were raised against this tradition, and it was widely repudiated. More recently, it has once again begun to find a few defenders. Mental imagery is a familiar aspect of most people's everyday experience Galton, a,b, ; Betts, ; Doob, ; Marks, , Far too many discussions of visual mental imagery fail to draw a clear distinction between the contention that people have quasi-visual experiences and the contention that such experiences are to be explained by the presence of representations, in the mind or brain, that are in some sense picture-like.

This picture theory or pictorial theory of imagery experience is deeply entrenched in our language and our folk psychology. However, although the majority of both laymen and experts probably continue to accept some form of picture theory, many 20th century philosophers and psychologists, from a variety of theoretical traditions, have argued strongly against it, and, in several cases they have developed quite detailed alternative, non-pictorial accounts of the nature and causes of imagery experiences e.

Others, it should be said, have developed and defended picture theory in sophisticated ways in the attempt to meet these critiques e. However, despite these developments, much philosophical and scientific discussion about imagery and the cognitive functions it may or may not serve continues to be based on the often unspoken and even unexamined assumption that, if there is mental imagery at all, it must consist in inner pictures. In fact the book is an extended and quite polemical defense of the much disputed view that visual mental imagery consists in representational brain states that are, in some significant and important ways, genuinely picture-like see supplement: The Quasi-Pictorial Theory of Imagery, and its Problems.

Although this denialist view of imagery has few, if any, supporters today, it is well known that not so very long ago, in the era of Behaviorist psychology, it had great influence. The book's title thus intentionally or otherwise invites us to conflate the now very controversial view that mental images are picture-like entities, with what is, today, the virtual truism that people really do have quasi-perceptual experiences, and that our science of the mind owes us some account of them.

Despite the fact that most scholarly discussions of imagery, in the past and today, do indeed focus mainly or exclusively upon the visual mode, in fact, quasi-perceptual experience in other sensory modes is just as real, and, very likely, just as common and just as psychologically important Newton, Contemporary cognitive scientists generally recognize this, and interesting studies of auditory imagery , kinaesthetic or motor imagery , olfactory imagery , haptic touch imagery , and so forth, can be found in the recent scientific literature e.

In the introduction to this entry, in order to avoid making a premature commitment to the picture theory, and in accordance with definitions given by psychologists such as McKellar , Richardson , and Finke , mental imagery was characterized as a form of experience i. However, this itself is far from unproblematic.

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Evidence for the occurrence of any experience is necessarily subjective and introspective, and, because of this, those who have doubts about the validity of introspection as a scientific method, may well be led to question whether there is any place for a concept such as imagery within a truly scientific world view. Although few later Behaviorist psychologists or their philosophical allies expressed themselves on the matter in quite the strong and explicit terms sometimes used by Watson, the era of Behaviorist psychology is characterized by a marked skepticism about imagery if not its existence, at least its psychological importance amongst both psychologists and philosophers.

Imagery did not become widely discussed again among scientific psychologists or philosophers of psychology until around the end of the s, when Behaviorism began to be displaced by Cognitivism as the dominant psychological paradigm. Most informed contemporary discussions of imagery, amongst both philosophers and psychologists, are still very much shaped by this recent history of skepticism about imagery or iconophobia , as it is sometimes called , and the subsequent reaction against it.

By contrast with their Behaviorist predecessors, most cognitive psychologists today hold that imagery has an essential role to play in our mental economy. Many may share some of the reservations of their Behaviorist predecessors about the place of introspection and subjectivity in science, but they take the view that imagery must be real and scientifically interesting because it is explanatorily necessary: The results of many experiments on cognitive functioning, they hold, cannot be satisfactorily explained without making appeal to the storage and processing of imaginal mental representations.

As Block a, a points out, an advantage of defining mental imagery in this way i. However, if it is not because they are picture-like, what is it that makes these mental representations mental images? Presumably the idea is that a mental representation deserves to be called an image if it is of such a type that its presence to mind i.

But this move relies upon our already having a grasp of the experiential conception of imagery, which must, therefore, be more fundamental than the representational conception just outlined. Furthermore, to define imagery in the way that Block, Kosslyn etc. A number of scientists and philosophers, coming from a diverse range of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives, do not accept that imagery experiences are caused by the presence to mind of representational tokens e.


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It should be admitted, however, that focusing too narrowly on the experiential conception of imagery has its own potential dangers. In particular, it may obscure the very real possibility, foregrounded by the representational conception , that importantly similar underlying representations or mechanisms may sometimes be operative both when we consciously experience imagery and sometimes when we do not. In practice, both the experiential and the representational conceptions of imagery are frequently encountered in the literature of the subject.

Unfortunately, it is often hard to tell which is intended in any particular case. Even where they are not actually conflated, confusion can arise when one conception is favored over the other without this ever being made sufficiently clear or explicit. Although it would be pedantic and potentially confusing to insist on explicitly drawing the distinction everywhere, where it seems important or helpful to do so this entry will refer to imagery experiences or quasi-perceptual experiences on the one hand, and imagery representations or imagery processes on the other.

Cognitive Science

There are further potential problems, however, with the brief characterization of imagery given in our introduction. Not only does what is said there duck the difficult and rarely considered task of specifying what dimensions and degrees of similarity to perception are necessary for an experience to count as imagery; it also elides the controversial question of whether, despite the surface resemblance, imagery is a sui generis phenomenon, conceptually quite distinct from true perceptual experience, or whether imagery and perception differ only in degree rather than in kind.

This view has frequently been criticized, however Reid, II. A related view, explicitly defended by some e. Several varieties of imaginative preceptual experience may be taken to fill in the continuum between these extremes: mistaken or illusive perceptions imagining, for instance, that the bush seen indistinctly in the darkness is a bear , and various types of non-deceptive seeing as or seeing in such as imagining a cloud to have the shape of a camel, weasel, or whale; seeing a Laughing Cavalier in paint on canvas; seeing someone's sadness in their eyes; or seeing the notorious duck-rabbit figure as a duck [or rabbit].

Figure 1. Others, however, notably Reid II. After all, it is argued, our imagination, unlike our perception, is under the control of our will and experienced as such. Provided I know what an elephant looks like, I can choose to imagine one wherever and whenever I want to, but I cannot choose to see an elephant unless one actually happens to be present. By contrast, if an elephant is present before my open eyes, I cannot help but see it, whether I will or no.

Cognitive psychology - Scholarpedia

However, although all or most of the differences between images and percepts pointed out by McGinn and Reid, Sartre and Wittgenstein , are probably real enough, the claim that any of them reflect true differences in kind, rather than degree, is on much shakier ground. However, not only observation, but also inference can lead to knowledge, and it has been argued that mental imagery can and does support certain types of inference that give us genuinely new knowledge about the real world Kosslyn, , ; Taylor, , Georgiou, ; Thomas, On a more consensual note, with only rare exceptions e.

Wright, ; Martin, p. It is in virtue of this intentionality that mental imagery may be and usually is regarded as a species of mental representation that can, and often does, play an important role in our thought processes. It is also generally accepted that imagery is, for the most part, subject to voluntary control. Although it is true that images often come into the mind unbidden, and sometimes it is hard to shake off unwanted imagery for instance, a memory of some horrible sight that one cannot get out of one's mind , most of us, most of the time can quite freely and voluntarily conjure-up and manipulate imagery of whatever we may please provided, of course, that we know what it looks like.

There are quasi-perceptual experiences, such as afterimages, that are not subject to this sort of direct voluntary control, and indeed, that do not seem to bear intentionality, but these are usually at least implicitly understood to be phenomena of a distinctly different type from mental imagery proper see supplement.

It seems likely that mental imagery has been discussed for as long as humans have been trying to understand their own cognitive processes. It receives attention in the oldest extended writings about cognition that have come down to us — the works of Plato and Aristotle — and there is reason to believe it was discussed by yet earlier Greek thinkers. Plato's and particularly Aristotle's writings have undoubtedly had an enormous and continuing influence on how cognition in general and imagery in particular are conceptualized within both the Western and the Muslim cultural traditions. However, there is reason to think that the phenomenon of imagery, if not this tradition of theorizing about it, is not culture bound.

Thus, of necessity, what follows will focus on the Western philosophical and scientific tradition. In any case, the seeds of the controversies about imagery that erupted in the 20 th century were sown not in Africa or the Orient, but in Greece. The following supplements discuss Greek conceptions of imagery prior to the work of Aristotle:.

Supplement: Ancient Imagery Mnemonics. Supplement: Plato and his Predecessors. Where Plato regarded images as irremediably deceptive, Aristotle, although he certainly recognized their potential for leading us astray De Anima a-b , saw them as playing an essential and central role in human cognition, one closely akin to that played by the more generic notion of mental representation in contemporary cognitive science. Indeed, he developed what amounts to the first comprehensive cognitive theory, a theory that has been enormously influential over the subsequent ages, and continues mostly indirectly to shape much scientific and philosophical thought about the mind even today.


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  • He was clearly aware of, and very possibly influenced by, the mnemonic imagery techniques in use in Greece see supplement , to which he alludes in at least four passages in his extant writings Topica b28, De Anima b18, De Memoria a12—16, De Insomniis b20— Some modern scholars, it should be noted, have questioned the translation of " phantasma " as "image," in part because Aristotle does not always seem to think of phantasmata as inner pictures, and also because he seems to think of them as playing a role in perception itself Nussbaum, ; Schofield, ; Birondo, As Hume distinguished impressions from ideas , contemporary colloquial English distinguishes between percepts and the mental images that we experience when we fantasize, daydream, or recall some experience from memory.

    Aristotle's concept of phantasma seems to collapse this distinction. It has thus been suggested that "phantasma" would be better translated as "appearance" Lycos, or "presentation" Beare, rather than as "image". However, contemporary scientific theories of imagery see sections 4. In any case, it is abundantly clear that, in many even if not all cases, Aristotle uses " phantasma " to refer to what we now call a mental image.

    Article excerpt

    Phantasmata have several functions paralleling those ascribed to imagery by modern folk psychology and some scientific psychology. In particular, they are central to Aristotle's theory of memory De Memoria et Reminiscentia ; see Sorabji, and to his theory of thought. Not only does remembering essentially involve the recall of imagery of past experiences, but, he tells us, "It is impossible to think without an image [ phantasma ]," De Memoria a 1; cf. Phantasmata also play a key role in his account of desire and motivation e. De Anima a — see Nussbaum, : When some desirable object is not actually present to our senses, exerting its pull on us directly, our motivation to strive to obtain it is driven by our awareness of its memory or fantasy image.

    This idea is still found in modern, scientific theories of desire McMahon ; Kavanagh et al.

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    Aristotle also apparently held that linguistic meaning derives from imagery, spoken words being but the symbols of the inner images De Interpretatione 16a 5—9; De Anima b 29—32; see Modrak, Today, few theorists of language take this notion seriously but see Paivio, , ; Prinz, , but it was almost universally accepted until relatively recent times Wollock, ; and see section 3. Aristotle has been accredited with the very invention of the concept of imagination Schofield, , and certainly it seems fair to say that the roots of most subsequent discussions of the concept can be traced back to his work even though, for him, it did not have the strong association with creativity and aesthetic insight that it has since acquired, mostly through the influence of the Romantic movement Watson, ; White, ; Thomas, a.

    Unfortunately, however, Aristotle's remarks about phantasia , suggestive and influential though they are, are scattered widely amongst the surviving texts, and the only extended discussion of the concept in De Anima III. After over two millennia of discussion, scholars still do not agree about crucial aspects of Aristotle's conception of phantasia , and thus about his view of the fundamental nature of imagery.

    It can hardly be denied that the concept of the idea was central to much of modern philosophy. Ideas were mental representations, and very frequently, though not necessarily always, they were explicitly or implicitly conceived of as mental images.