Monday, June 14, 2010

Mental Images

Can you imagine a tiger? (Look at it from the side rather than from in front)


If so, do it.

Do you see a mental image?


Does it have stripes?


Now, count the stripes.

How many are there?

Some people can count them. I can't. Some people can't see the tiger at all.

I can't even tell if I'm in the stripe-counting category or not. I can imagine tigers with 20 stripes. And I can count the stripes on those. But my initial tiger had stripes which I couldn't count. What the hell do I mean by 'mental image'? I can't imagine a physical image which has stripes that I can't count!!!

On the other hand, if I imagine a zebra crossing, that's got five stripes. But I can't tell you whether that's the real answer, or even if different zebra crossings have different numbers.

Apparently there was once a great philosophical debate about whether 'imagination' was just an over-extended metaphor. Some philosophers claimed that people couldn't see mental images, just that they had grown so attached to the idea as a metaphor for what actually happens that they couldn't let it go.

Other philosophers thought the first lot of philosophers were lunatics, or just pretending in order to be provocative.

The debate was settled when Francis Galton found out that it worked differently for different people.

I don't actually know whether that's true or not. I just read it on the internet at random. But the very idea that it might be true is blowing my mind. This is much more profound than the child's question 'Is the blue that you see the same as the blue that I see, or do we call different sensations by the same name?'.

To suddenly conceive, at the age of forty, that peoples' consciousnesses could be that different is really freaking me out.

I've never had the slightest trouble imagining that everyone except me is a 'philosophical zombie'. And, since there's no way to tell, I've an open mind on the idea that only some of us are conscious, and the rest are zombies.

But this is weird. It turns out that some of you are aliens!

Hmm, thinking about it, I just used the word 'imagining' for something I have no image of.

Panicking now. If you're reading this post, could you leave a comment with your answers to the tiger-questions?

And actually, on the zombie question, if you're reading this post and you're not conscious at all, could you leave a comment to that effect?


  1. In order: Yes; I'm not sure the question has a definite answer, but I get an impression-of-shape but not the same sensations as if I were looking at an actual tiger; yes; my mental representation of the tiger has the "has stripes" bit set but no particular value filled in for the "number of stripes" field.

  2. Ooh! So maybe it is true! I get a definite image, like looking at a photograph, but when I try to count the stripes something goes wrong.

  3. You inspired me to look for Galton's work. The first thing I googled was "Francis Galton Mental Imagery", and the top hit is:

    It's absolute genius, and an example of what science writing should be.

    I'm not sure that he proves his point though, because although I feel most comfortable with the answers of his 'first suboctile' to all three of his questions, I actually feel as though I know what all his respondents meant, and I could have written any of their answers, whereas the 'how many stripes on the tiger question' is much more definite. I can't count them. (Unless I deliberately imagine an n-striped tiger. Then I can.)

    But, this looks like it might have been the founding document of something (Experimental Psychology?). I wonder what the moderns have to say about this sort of thing.

    Why on earth isn't it common knowledge? Surely this is fundamental to what we are?

  4. Galton was a very, very clever chap.

    Regrettably it's .htm rather than .html.

    I can't help wondering whether what Galton encountered was (at least in some cases) not a deficiency in mental imagery on the part of his scientific acquaintances, but confabulation masquerading as introspection on the part of the others. The fact that, e.g., Galton says that artists at the RA level described themselves as not having "mental imagery", whereas random individuals said they did, seems to me like evidence against the deficiency theory. On the other hand, Galton had all the answers to his questions and he doesn't seem to have drawn that conclusion...

  5. How did I manage to get that wrong? I cut and pasted it!

    However you're spot on:

    I was actually just wondering if it was the other way round.

    The more I introspect on my mental images, the less they seem like mental images. However they certainly seem as real as photographs before I start thinking about them too closely (like trying to count stripes, or wonder whether the grass round the tiger's feet is in focus even though the background is not).

    Some background:

    I'm a Cambridge maths graduate, and I was somewhere near the top quartile of my year exam-wise even though I was a very lazy student. At a fairly conservative estimate that makes me something like one in a thousand for mathematical ability, and I was always convinced that for me at least, maths was all visualization.

    Even at the time, I was aware that other people did maths in a completely different way, having intuition about formulae and symbol manipulation that I just didn't have naturally.

    As a result I'd expect to be at the top of the scale for visual imagination on almost any test, but it appears that that's not so. I'm more 'top octile' if I try to imagine which of Galton's answers sounds like what I would have said if I hadn't already read the damned paper.

    Also I absolutely don't have this ability to project an image onto a blank piece of paper or a wall that he talks about. Weirdly, though, I can imagine what it would be like to be able to do that.

    For comparison, I've just asked various questions to my entirely non-mathematical housemate, who is an art teacher. It sounds like her mind works the same as mine.

    I'm wondering if Galton found differences in people's descriptions of how their minds worked, or genuine differences in their mental powers, or differences in how their mysterious consciousnesses perceived identical physical processes in their heads.

    Is there such a subject as experimental philosophy?

  6. i have always wondered if what i see as "blue" is the same color to others. But I never realized that other people could not "imagine" objects to a certain point of detail. Imagining the tiger is easy, I can see the stripes. Counting them is a bit more difficult, I think because i don't know how many stripes a tiger is supposed to have. If you tell me a tiger has five stripes well then, bam I have a tiger with five stripes. Imagine a tennis ball, that is less complex its green and fuzzy and has 1 rubber seam running around it

  7. There's no such thing as a philosophical zombie.

    Get over your self, and maybe you'll start understanding how everything (neuroscience, science-based philosophy, reality) fits together perfectly.

    Hint: it's all a bunch of patterns. Random signals are useless for survival.

  8. Feynman

  9. Brainsssss......

  10. I haven't checked anon's Feynman video, but there's a bit in "Surely you're joking..." (I think) where F. found objective evidence for a difference in people's mental workings that seems related to this. Get someone to count to 60, in their head, at a rate of about 1Hz. Time them a few times; you'll find they're quite consistent. Now see whether they can do it (1) while reading silently, (2) while talking. Feynman found that most people can do 1 but not 2, or 2 but not 1; it seems to go along with whether they visualize the numbers as they count. This seems like some evidence in support of the idea that some people have more-visual mental images than others.

    Since we're comparing backgrounds as well as mental imagery: I'm also a Cambridge maths graduate, among the top few in my year if you trust exam performance to measure anything useful (I don't). I've always felt distinctly weaker visually than other people of comparable mathematical ability overall.

    As for philosophical zombies, see Zombies: the movie, by an author already mentioned on this blog.

    And as for experimental philosophy, see e.g. the Experimental Philosophy blog.

  11. Huh. The second link there appears to be b0rked. I'll try again: the Experimental Philosophy blog.

  12. Gareth, are you still in Cambridge? Do you fancy lunch?

    Panton Arms about 1 o'clock? (It's Wednesday)

  13. You are at an age that, in some cultures, and in some times, a person could choose to retire from the world for the purpose of contemplation, whatever it may mean in that culture and time. Research a bit, and you will find that people have different preferred modalities of interaction with the world, visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. Your ability to process the world in one of these modalities can be trained.
    Anyway, you don't really exist. I'm just a housecat dreaming of being techie remembering when he had time to be contemplative, and you are a figment in that dream. ;)

  14. Yes, I'm still in Cambridge. It would be good to meet up for lunch some time, but I can't do that for at least the next few weeks.

  15. The Tiger stripe mental image challenge neglects the difficulties involved in counting the stripes on a real tiger. It's not so simple - unless the tiger is idealised with uniform, unfrayed stripes. Why should counting them on an imagined tiger be any easier? Zebras,leopards - even harder. But if I imagine a dice, counting is simple, but that's because I recogise the pattern that is (say) 5. Scale, pattern, symmetry and delineation are factors in counting for both mental and real images. If I imagine a square foot of tiger skin, I have no problem counting the stripes. Maybe mental images can be Impressionist in nature too - we have an impression of 'Tiger' but the detail doesn't withstand scrutiny.

  16. I see a tiger (a drawing of a tiger; he's serious and dangerous, with a spring in his gait. It's like the cover of Java in a Nutshell, but I think he's got orange/yellow stripes. His mouth is open.)

    I can count 3 stripes. He has more, but I can't count them. It feels similar to trying to count a row of many identically aligned things, that are a bit too small to see clearly.

    You'll like this, the bicameral mind:

  17. I found this blog because I was exploring something I've been curious about for a while. First, I'll answer your questions.

    I see the tiger, first from the side, then when you told me to look at it from the side I let myself look at it's face. It had stripes, and I could count them with some difficulty.

    Also, I'm not a zombie as far as I'm concerned, not that that's any comfort to you...but the point really is that only you can decide whatever way you wish to look at the rest of us.

    Now, the reason I found your blog was because I was looking for information. I got a pet a few days ago, and I've been thinking about it pretty much since I got it. I've noticed that all day today - whenever I close my eyes - I see random images of the pet.

    I don't believe they're remembered images, perhaps they are, but based on the angles and distance I'm guessing not. It's hard to tell.

    Anyway, I've found throughout my life that anything I focus on for a couple of days...whenever I close my eyes I'll see images of it. (This most often happens with books or video games I've been getting into).

    That's not all. When I'm not focused on something, but I have been using my imagination even for just a short time...I see seemingly totally random images VERY clearly when I close my eyes.

    I believe this has been going on my whole life, but I specifically remember remarking about it the first time in 4th grade to some friends. (I'm 22 years old now)

    I also mentioned it to my mom when I was a teenager, she says it happens to her too. It's her belief that it runs through her side of the family (which has a history of mild to severe epilepsy).

    If I do have some form of mild epilepsy it's so mild that only the visions indicate it's there. I want to stress again how clear they clear as a dream is to a person who is sleeping.

    I've looked for anyone else talking about this kind of thing's not really anywhere. I see some things about mental imagery just before sleep, and I think there was one person on Yahoo!Answers who was referring to something similar. (She also said she had a history of drug use, but wasn't on them anymore).

    I haven't been on drugs, and like I said this has been happening for years - and it doesn't bother me at all. I was just curious.

    Chances are I won't see any response to this message, I just thought I'd share it with you since you seem interested in mental imagery. I know I am!

    1. Thank you very much for this comment, your images sound really cool and I wish I had them. It does sound as though you have all the time the experiences I have just as I go to sleep. I wonder if your conscious attention is being drawn to some subconscious processing that I never notice.

      It doesn't sound too unlikely that a brain confronted with an interesting new pet would try rotating it to get the hang of what it would look like from various angles. I'd imagine that happens in all minds, but you're somehow able to notice it going on.

  18. I've never been able to picture a mental image , I cannot picture my own fathers face . it seems as if imagination does not exist , I can describe stuff , like an apple . but not because I can mentally see it , but because I've experienced it . it is quite possible , and I'm living proof , but it is not essential for daily life , I've been perfectly fine without visualizing mental images .

    1. Wow, we all really do seem to be different inside. I've had conversations with a couple of friends recently, both clever, imaginative and articulate people, who claim not to have a 'stream of consciousness'. They say that almost all their thinking is done in pictures, and (one of them is a playwright) that the hard bit is to translate their thoughts into words. Whereas my 'inner voice' is talking all the time, and if I have a thought then it's already in words.

      Last night I hit upon the idea of trying to think in French, which I'm quite a bad speaker of.

      I can form simple innaccurate thoughts "The things attached to the tree are green but the middle thing is brown and hard, maybe all the trees in the world are like that", I thought, while sitting looking at a green tree and a red one.

      But the interesting thing is that in French I'm aware of the thought forming just before the words, whereas in English the thought appears to be in words to start with. And I was definitely thinking about bark and wondering what the word for it was, without hearing the English word "bark".

      I'm figuring that the thoughts happen in 'mentalese', and the translation to English is so rapid that I don't notice it happening, whereas it's slower in French so I have time to notice the difference. It seems my two friends don't do the translation automatically but as an act of conscious will.

      I'm going to try to learn to think without speaking. It sounds like fun.

  19. I can't form any mental images, sounds, or other sensory forms. I have no sensory memory or imagination. I can't see, hear, smell, or touch a tiger in my mind.

    I'm strong in math, logic, and spatial reasoning. I graduated first in my high school class and am the lead design engineer of an electronics company at 25. So I can function without sensory consciousness.

    But to be honest, it is a sever limitation. I'm great a designing circuits, but I always have to draw or build them. Other engineers design them in their head, using mental images. I read books and its just words on a page. You read the word tiger and you can see one. To me its just a word. I can't picture the faces of immediate family. I have no memory or imagination, other than for facts and numbers...honestly its really frustrating and depressing. I feel like I missed out on a real consciousness...