Mental Imagery, Creativity and Planetary Survival

This post discusses one of the foundations of human creativity – mental imagery – and its role in human and planetary survival. The post is based on a Keynote Presentation I gave to the Japanese Imagery Association, University of Sapporo, Japan, in August, 2010.

Mental imagery – seeing in the “mind’s eye” – can be studied in its pure form or as it is applied in different kinds of performance. In its purest form, mental imagery exists as mental representations of experience, experiences that actually occurred or ‘pretend’ experiences that never happened but can be conceived as possibilities.  

Research on imagery has  relevance to diverse fields ranging from psychology to science and technology and across literature, fine art and music. Scientific study of mental imagery has advanced through development of measuring instruments such as the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ). The VVIQ has been used in more than 2000 studies as a measure of individual differences in vividness of visual imagery. The VVIQ is a predictor of the person’s performance in a variety of cognitive, motor, and creative tasks. Recent studies have found that individual differences in VVIQ scores can be used to predict changes in a person’s brain while visualizing different activities.

Cui et al. (2007) used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the association between early visual cortex activity and visual imagery. The investigators found that reported image vividness correlates with the relative fMRI signal in visual cortex. Thus the subjective experience of a mental image and objective measurement of visual cortical activity show a strong and significant relationship. Studies reviewed also show strong associations between imagery vividness and cognitive processes, motor activity and creativity. 

Human evolution and planetary survival may ultimately depend upon the effective use of the human imagination – and mental imagery in particular.

Definitions, theories and paradigms

Mental imagery is quasi-perceptual experience, that is, experience that subjectively resembles perceptual experience, but which occurs in the absence of the relevant perceptual stimuli. This definition is consistent with research that has been carried out within different research traditions and theoretical frameworks. Research paradigms for the scientific study of mental imagery have included:

A. N=1 case studies

B. Introspection

C. Self-report & questionnaire measures

D. Experimental methods

E. C + D: Experimental methods combined with self-report or questionnaire measures

In this article, I review studies that fall within category E. 

Theories of mental imagery include the Picture Theory (e.g. Plato), Description/Tacit knowledge Theory (e.g. Pylyshyn, 1973) and Enactive Theory (e.g. Ellis, 1995; Thomas, 1999), PT, DT and ET respectively. Picture theory (PT) assumes that visual mental images are like pictures.  PT is a “naïve” theory, which does not hold up to serious scrutiny. For example, pictures are static, whereas images are dynamic; pictures are fixed, while images may fade or change. The un-picture-like characteristics of mental images are easily demonstrated using Professor Hatakeyama’s Open Circle Test (Hatakeyama, 1974). Description theory (DT) assumes that the brain represents information including images in a propositional format like a digital computer. But is the digital computer a good model for the brain? Perhaps an analogue computer is a better model for the brain?

A third theoretical approach, Enactive Theory, allows that mental imagery is similar to perception, but without the questionable assumption that mental imaging is similar to looking at pictures at an exhibition. Perception itself is not even analogous to looking at pictures in a gallery. Perception is integrated with action, the affordances of stimuli, activities carried out by the organism. Perception is multi-modal, not only visual, as is imaging. The perceiving organism is exploring and asking questions of the environment (Ellis, 1995), actively and intentionally seeking out answers from the sensory stimuli that surround it. The studies to be reviewed here can be seen as providing general support to Enactive Theory.  The particular version of Enactive Theory discussed here, Activity Cycle Theory, was proposed by Marks (1995, 1999). The Imagery System is conceptualized as a cyclical set of processes which includes the mental image itself (I), schemata (S), actions (A), and affect (A) (Figure 1). The imagery cycle or ‘ISAA’ may be triggered by activation of any one of the four processes and, in principle, the cycle can proceed in either direction.

Meta-analysis of VVIQ data up to mid-1990s was carried out by McKelvie (1995). Consistent with Activity Cycle Theory, the meta-analysis showed that the vividness of visual imagery is strongly associated with performances which benefit from mental practice using perceptual-motor imagery. According to the Activity Cycle Theory, vivid images influence schemas more than weak images, and weak images influence schemas less than vivid images.

The Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) consists of 16 items which the participants are asked to mentally image and rate on a 5-point vividness rating scale, where 1 = vivid and 5 = no image at all (Marks, 1973).  Citations over the period 1974-2009 show an upward trend with over 400 studies in 35 years. The VVIQ has been used in 29 countries, with the greatest output in the USA (40%), England (14%), Canada (14%), Australia (7%), Italy (6%), Spain (6%), France (5%), Germany (3%), and Japan (2.6%). A few representative studies will be reviewed in the following sections.

Imagery and cognition

As noted above, McKelvie (1995) reviewed all VVIQ studies up to that time and these empirical findings have been reinforced by hundreds of studies showing that the VVIQ is a predictor of cognitive perfomance. What is less well-established is the function of imagery in development and aging. Of relevance here is Hilgard’s (1958) review of learning research and what he referred to “transfer of training”, the effects of old learning in new situations. Does mental imagery help us to transfer learning from older experiences to new ones, the concept of “cognitive plasticity”. It is often alleged that older people are less flexible and adaptive to new situations because they suffer from memory loss. In the vernacular, it is said that: “if you don’t use it, you lose it”.  This leads to the interesting question of whether imagery ability shows a decrement during aging. Do we become less able to use mental imagery in cognitive tasks when we are older? If so, are imagery experts less affected by this decrement in imagery competence?  We turn here to a study of precisely these questions.

Lindenberger (1991) studied aging, professional expertise, and cognitive plasticity in groups of older expert designers and non-expert older and younger controls. The professional expertise in expert designers was expected to transfer to new laboratory tasks. The tasks involved a skill base that the experts could easily utilise: imagery formation. Lindenberger used the Method of Loci to enable the participants to maximize their memory of word lists by using associative imagery.  Examples of how places (loci) can be linked to word items is shown below:

Locus (place)     Item        Associative image

Church               bread       priest gives bread

Fountain            cat            cat drinks water

Shop                   plant         shop has plants by door

Park gate           rice           rice bag hanging on gate

Café                   book          man reading book in cafe

Car park           fish            fish drives a car

Lindenberger used 20 Berlin landmarks as loci in study. In the more difficult trials, the new items were presented at a speed of one every 1.5 sec, which is quite rapid for associative learning. Mnemonic skill of the older subjects (expert and controls combined, n =12) was significantly correlated with the VVIQ scores, r = -.54, p < .05.

In the group of combined older subjects (n=12), the correlation between age and VVIQ score was .76 (p < .05).  This finding suggests that older people experience images of lower vividness than younger people.  This finding has interesting implications. If imagery vividness fades with age, the Verbal system could be expected to become more dominant with age. This could be one reason why older people generally show a preference for fixed routines, and become less flexible and adaptable to change. There is also an important link between imagery and creativity and evidence that people become less creative in older age (see below).

Imagery and cortex

Another significant issue in recent studies has been the relationship between imagery and cortical activation. The objective methods of brain research have been employed to investigate the more subjective experience of mental imagery. An excellent example of this approach is the study by Cui, Jeter, Yang, Montague and Eagleman (2007) who employed three tasks consisting of the VVIQ, a colour word discrimination task and an fMRI scan of visualization. Participants visualised themselves or another person bench pressing or stair climbing. Participants began to visualize upon hearing the ‘go’ signal, and stopped visualization upon hearing the ‘stop’ signal. This produced a 10-second imagery phase and a 10-second rest phase. The results showed that there was a strong correlation between vividness of imagery as measured by the VVIQ and the relative fMRI signal in visual cortex (r = -.73; p=.04). Thus individual differences in the vividness of visual imagery can be measured objectively. The subjective experience of forming a mental image and objective measurement of visual cortical activity show a strong and significant relationship. The correlation between relative fMRI signal and congruent- incongruent performance was also quite strong (r = -.77, p=.03). These findings suggest that visual images are coded in cortical activity in quite a specific fashion. The level of activation reflects the intensity of the image.

Vingerhoets, de Lange, Vandemaele, Deblaere and Achten (2002) asked 12 right- handed men to perform two mental rotation tasks and two control tasks while whole-head fMRI was applied. Mental rotation tasks required the comparison of different sorts of stimulus pairs, viz. pictures of hands and pictures of tools that were either identical or mirror images and which were rotated in the plane of the picture. Control tasks were similar except that stimuli pairs were not rotated. Imaging data showed an important difference in premotor area activation: pairs of hands engender bilateral premotor activation while pairs of tools elicit only left premotor brain activation. The results suggested that participants imagined moving both their hands in the hand condition, but imagined manipulating objects with their hand of preference (right hand) in the tool condition.  The motor imagery mimicked the “natural way” in which a person would manipulate the object in reality, and the activation of cortical regions during mental rotation were apparently influenced by the afforded actions elicited by the stimuli presented.

Image content is also specifically encoded by the cortex and may be measured in an objective fashion. This has important applications in clinical patients who are unable to communicate by any normal means. Some patients have damage to the peripheral motor system which prevent overt responses to command although the cognitive ability to perceive and understand such commands may remain intact. Such patients include those who are in a Persistent Vegetative State (PSV). Activation using fMRI can be used to identify residual cognitive function and conscious awareness in patients who are assumed to be in a vegetative state yet retain cognitive abilities. Owen et al (2007) studied three healthy volunteers imagining playing tennis during real-time fMRI. In this figure functional MRI data are superimposed on 3-dimensional reconstructions of structural MRI data for online examination of brain activity during mental imaging. Similar significant activation is observed in the supplementary motor area in all 3 healthy volunteers. Data from a patient suffering from PVS showed supplementary motor area activity during tennis imagery which was highly similar to the pattern of activation shown in a healthy volunteer.

Parahippocampal gyrus, posterior parietal lobe, and lateral premotor cortex activity while imagining moving around a house in the patient and in a healthy volunteer are on the right. Similar imagery gave similar cortical responses in both people. Imagery of moving around the house gave a more complex activation pattern than imaging tennis. The pattern is quite distinctive in each case.

This previous study led the investigators to wonder whether the content-specific fMRI activation could be used to communicate ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ answers to questions which a patient would be unable to answer by any normal means. Monti et al. (2010) published a study indicating that a PVS patient is able to willfully modulate their brain activity to communicate with the outside world. They performed a study involving 54 patients with disorders of consciousness. They used fMRI) to assess each patient’s ability to generate willful, content-specific responses during two established mental-imagery tasks. A technique was then developed to determine whether such tasks could be used to communicate yes-or-no answers to simple questions. Five of the patients were able to correctly answer questions by using the imagery coding of Yes and No:

Yes = mental image of playing tennis

No = mental image of moving through house

The results for the 54 patients enrolled in the study showed that five patients could willfully modulate their brain activity. In three of these patients, additional bedside testing was carried out which revealed some sign of awareness, but in the other two patients, no voluntary behavior could be detected by means of clinical assessment.

The implications of this study are quite profound. The evidence suggests that patients should be able to communicate with the outside world by using their internal mental images to trigger different fMRI responses associated with Yes and No answers.  The study confirms that image content is specifically encoded in the cortex.  It also shows the power of motor activity in defining the distinctiveness of mental imagery: imagery of playing tennis and moving through a house have distinctive motor components which are encoded differentially in the cortex. This leads to our next topic: studies of mental imagery and action.

Mental imagery and action

We have seen in the preceding section evidence that the cortical encoding of visual images included motor components. It has been established for several decades that mental imagery as a form of rehearsal has a highly beneficial effect in motor skill learning (Feltz & Landers, 1983; Suinn, 1980). Subjects with higher imagery ability replicate movement patterns more accurately than subjects of lesser imagery ability (Ryan & Simons, 1982; Goss, 1986). This leads to the interesting question: Can some kind of action enhance mental imagery? If so, motor programs may underlie imagery processes. Hishitani (2003) examined this hypothesis. The task involved guided mental synthesis – combining two images together to form a new synthesis, an image of a different thing. One example of the instructions is as follows:

Imagine Capital “L”,

Imagine Capital “P” on the right side of the “L,”

Put two letters close to each other, and contact the right endpoint of horizontal line of the “L” with the bottom of vertical line of the “P”. What do you see as an image? Write down its name, and draw its picture.

What did you make with these 2 letters?

The correct answer is a mug. All participants closed their eyes during the task. In the closed-fists group, they put their closed fists on a table. In the drawing-action group, they draw the image on a table with an index finger of their dominant hand. The lowest third and highest third on VVIQ scores were selected from 180 undergraduates. The groups receiving the two different conditions were closely matched for their VVIQ scores. There were two significant findings:

1) With closed fists, good imagers showed significantly more correct answers. This result indicates that vivid imagery facilitated the synthesis of the correct solutions. 2) With a drawing action, the two groups did not differ. Poor imagers scored more highly, while good imagers scored slightly worse. This produced a significant interaction between imagery group and task condition. These findings indicate that the motor action of pointing out the image of the two letters was a surrogate for vivid mental images (or vice versa). We can conclude from Hishitani’s (2003) study that: Imagery ability may be functionally equivalent to the drawing action in the synthesis task. The formation and operation of mental imagery is intimately linked to motor programs. Motor programs can be activated by drawing action. Such activation induces performance enhancement in the poor imagers.

A parallel case exists for the sense of smell. When we try to image a smell we may make spontaneous sniffing responses with our noses.  Sniffing activity enhances the vividness of the resulting imagery. So what happens to the vividness of our olfactory imagery when we are unable to make these sniffing motions? Arshamian et al. (2008) studied the effect on olfactory image vividness of blocking sniffing using a simple nose clip. Examples of odour stimuli used in their study were: Alcohol; Pen; Grilled chicken; Red wine; Almond; Honey; Resin; Apricot; Ketchup; a Rose.

Confirming their hypotheses, Arshamian et al.’s  (2008) results showed that preventing sniffing resulted in a selectively poorer olfactory but not visual vividness, whereas blocked vision showed no effect on either the visual or olfactory vividness ratings. These observations confirm that sensorimotor activity is an important aspect for the quality of evoked olfactory images. The studies reviewed in this section confirm Action Cycle Theory, which holds that sensori-motor actvity is an intrinsic part of the cycle of processes (‘ISAA’) that are linked to image generation: schemas, actions, affects and images.

Creativity and mental imagery

The study of imagery and creativity is of special importance. Many of the problems faced by mankind involve the use of creative thinking. In this section I review one representative study indicating the strong links that exist between imagery vividness and creativity. Kobnithikulwong (2007) at the University of Florida, presented her masters thesis on “Creativity and Imagery in Interior Design…” Kobnithikulwong’s conceptual framework consisted of a Person, a Process and a Product. The Person needs to have a creative personality and vivid visual imagery. The Process needs to have an Internal Visualization and an External Representation of that visualization which is the Product. Kobnithikulwong designed a drawing and writing task and also measured students’ VVIQ and creativity scales.

The students were allowed 30 minutes to do a drawing of a “transitional space within a building” and 10 minutes to write a description of being in the space. Significant differences were found between the high and low creative performance students. Low creative performance produced narratives averaging 73 words. High creative performance produced narratives averaging at 133 words, nearly double the length. The low creatives contained linear and rectangular forms that gave the designs a static look. High creatives produced stronger dynamic movement in their designs by using curves and free-form elements. Solutions in the high group employed movement from curves to create perspective “Pulling a viewer into their spaces”, while low creatives did not make this kind of connection with the viewer. High creatives showed better quality perspective building techniques and designed spaces which were open on one side or end. Low creatives were mostly enclosed with a more limited perspective. High creatives showed high contrast and line weight while lows produced drawings that were less legible with low line weight and low contrast.

Kobnithikulwong (2007) concluded that: “The qualitative analysis indicated that judged creative performance, as an external representation of visualization, positively related to vividness of visual imagery or internal visualization.” The correlation between VVIQ score with eyes closed and creativity scores was .31, p<.02. Dividing the two groups at the median creativity score gave a significant difference of around 10 points in the VVIQ with eyes closed between the two creativity groups, p = .006. However, the scatterplot shows that the relationship is curvilinear and so the use of curvilinear regression (instead of linear) would have yielded a much stronger association.

New applications of mental imagery

Applications of  mental imagery cross many different fields, including the arts, architecture, design, science, education, sports, IT,  policy and planning. Global problems caused by human behaviour such as warming, poverty and over-population may be helped by applying mental imagery in creative ways. Human and planetary survival may ultimately depend upon the effective use of  human imagination, including mental imagery.

William Blake showed God creating the Universe (1794) (Figure 3). I doubt Blake, a visionary though he was,  would have dreamed of the World we have today. Global warming with unprecedented temperatures, population growth, water shortages, hunger and poverty.

In choosing strategies for the solution to global warming one can consider Geo-engineering solutions; Behavioural solutions; Prayer; or Do-nothing-and-wait. Sometimes, we cannot see what is right in front of our noses: how to change things using simple tools we already possess. We become attracted to dramatic solutions that require massive injections of funding and commercial exploitation. For example,  the U.N. Climate Panel has reviewed the idea of installing a metallic screen or shield covering a 106 sq km (40.93 sq mile) patch of space 1.5 million kms (930,000 miles) away from earth in the direction of the sun. The 3,000- tonne structure could be put in place over 100 years by 100 space shuttle flights with an indeterminate cost expected to run into trillions of dollars (Reuters, 2008).

Human behaviour change using mental imagery can help to solve world problems. Tobacco use is one the world’s greatest health scourges. Paul Sulzberger and I applied mental imagery techniques to help tens of thousands of people to quit smoking (Sulzberger & Marks, 1977; Marks, 1993; 2005).  If applied on national and international scale, the numbers of quitters could be tens or hundreds of millions. My work in health psychology tells me that the situation isn’t hopeless (e.g. Marks, Murray, Evans & Estacio, 2011).  There is a huge potential for change.

In conclusion, using the VVIQ, and other methods, we have established the important role of mental imagery in human cognition, consciousness, action and creativity.  In designing solutions to global problems such as warming and population growth, there is no machinery to rival the human imagination. The same techniques that were successfully applied to smoking can be applied to the human behaviours to prevent further global warming and population growth.


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of visual imagery.  MID thesis, University of Florida, Department of Interior Design.

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Published by David F Marks

Author, editor, psychologist.

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