Labels Matter: How Semantics and Mental Imagery Propel Us to Success

Why Visuals Alone Aren't Enough to optimize our performance

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

When viewing the world around us, we construct meaning through our five senses and through the labels and concepts we attach to things. To succeed at performing a particular activity, we visualize in our imagination the process of performing it, along with using semantic labels. Professor Vishton explains.

Woman visualizing
Mental imagery visualizing the practice of an activity should include semantic labels for the parts of the activity and its related concepts. Photo By February_Love / Shutterstock

Merging Semantics with Mental Imagery

To enhance performance, your use of mental imagery should be from a first-person perspective, multimodal (incorporating multiple senses), and precise. A fourth aspect of effective imagery is the use of mental representations, or semantic labels, which have word meaning that represents external objects or events of your mental imagery. 

For example, if you imagine yourself putting in golf, the ball should go in the hole. That sounds like an obvious feature of good imagery, but it connects with a much broader range of things that happen when you imagine something.

Mental images activate sensory and motor processing areas of the brain, but they also inherently activate semantic processing. Semantic information is associated with semantic labels for concepts like success and failure or confidence and anxiety. 

When you form a mental image as part of preparing to perform some action, it’s critical that these semantic labels be included as well. By understanding this aspect of imagery, you can improve your use of them in the domain of visuomotor action control. 

Sensory Processing

It turns out that you can use imagery to enhance things that have nothing at all to do with sports and hand-eye coordination. Let’s consider the semantic aspects of mental imagery in more detail.

If a pattern of activity in sensory areas of our cortex is produced by actual sensory input, it’s created in what’s called a bottom-up fashion. The activity of sensory neurons identifies low-level features of the input and builds up a mental representation of the state of the outside world. 

If a pattern of activity in sensory areas of our cortex is instead produced by imagined sensory input, then it’s being created in a top-down fashion. Our brain starts with a high-level, coarse description of the imagined world and then activates lower level features that are associated with it. Starting with a particular high-level, semantically labeled description of the world is thus a critical part of good mental imagery.

Let’s build a mental image from scratch from simple geometric figures. You can imagine drawing this on a piece of paper if you’d like, or you can imagine shapes forming in front of you—perhaps on a computer screen or floating in the air. 

Why We Need Semantics

First, imagine a symmetrical triangle. The base should be at the bottom. The other two lines should be identical in length and should be a little bit longer than the base. If it helps, it should be an isosceles triangle. 

Next, add a vertical line that’s the same as the height of the triangle. Place that vertical line in your image so that the top of the line touches the triangle at the center of the base. 

Now, add a long horizontal line, about twice as long as the vertical line. Place the horizontal line so that the bottom of the vertical line touches the center of the horizontal line. You should have a clear mental image of this. What is it?

Most people find it difficult to recognize this figure in a mental image. When you see it, though, you’ll be able to easily identify it. It’s a simplified picture of a pine tree. 

Even when you know what it is, however, your reaction is most likely, “Huh? A pine tree?” Imagined visual images are processed in the same regions of the brain as actual visual images, but they aren’t the same thing. 

When we think of those parts of the image as separate objects, they retain that identity in the mental image. Integrating them together as a unit just doesn’t work. 

Mental imagery, therefore, includes the overall visualized images plus the semantic information identifying the parts of the image. In terms of the imagery exercise described above, it is important, right from the start, that the mentally rehearsed activity contains that semantic label for the concept of “success.”

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

About Kate Findley 401 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.