Mind over Matter: How Mental Imagery Ignites Your Senses

What MRI scans reveal about mental imagery and sensory stimuli

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

When you imagine something by conjuring up mental imagery, you are activating the same areas of your brain that are connected to your five senses. Professor Vishton explains.

Woman with her eyes closed
Neuroscience research supports the idea of a person developing a mental imagery of a desired outcome and then being focused to achieve that result. Photo By stockfour / Shutterstock

Mental Imagery in the Brain

You can use mental imagery to enhance many aspects of your abilities—your visuomotor, cognitive, and even social and emotional abilities. The human imagination is a powerful thing, but few of us have any idea how directly powerful imagination can be

A writer of inspirational slogans, William Arthur Ward, is often quoted for saying, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.” This may sound like a smarmy quote from a motivational poster or a greeting card. Ward was no cognitive neuroscientist, but there’s a great deal of cognitive neuroscience research suggesting that this idea has merit.

Many areas of the brain participate in mental imagery processes. One of the first areas where this was identified was in the visual cortex. 

The Occipital Lobe

It’s been known for more than a century that important visual processing takes place in your occipital lobe, located in the back of your brain. This finding wasn’t based on high tech neuroimaging. 

When people would suffer damage to this part of the brain, they would often lose the ability to see. If you’ve ever suffered a blow to your head and seen stars afterward, that’s because your visual cortex has been damaged. 

Those stars that you see are neurons in this region firing off bursts of activity, in some cases as they die. Thankfully, as long as that doesn’t happen too often, your visual cortex is very robust in rewiring itself to deal with slight damage.

If someone were to reach into your skull and stimulate a group of neurons in a particular location in your occipital lobe, you would see a spot of light. If they were to turn out the lights and then shine a light on the location where you’d seen that spot of light, then the same neuron section that they’d just stimulated would become active. 

This example demonstrates that there are connections from particular places on your light-sensitive retina to particular locations in the occipital lobe. If someone projects a small spot of light right onto your eyes, a small region of the visual cortex will become active. If they shine a bigger spot of light onto your retina, then a bigger region of the visual cortex will become active.

Beyond Visual Processing

This occipital area processes more than just visual stimuli. American psychologist and neuroscientist Stephen Kosslyn and his collaborators had study participants lay in an fMRI scanner in complete darkness—there was no light. 

Not surprisingly, there was no concentration of activity in the occipital lobe. Kosslyn then asked the participants to imagine a spot of light. 

When they did so, areas of the occipital lobe became active. When he asked them to imagine a larger spot of light, a larger area of the occipital lobe became active.

Now, the level of activity was substantially lower than what would have been seen with actual light, but the increase in activation was highly significant. The take-home message of this study is clear. 

When you imagine a visual stimulus, you use your visual sensory systems to do so. When you imagine something very vividly—vividly enough that it feels like you can almost see it—that makes complete sense. The same neurons that would be active if you could see it are activated via mental imagery.

This basic relation between imagination and neural processing has been found across a large number of domains. When you imagine moving your arm, the part of your cortex that’s activated when you really move your arm becomes active. 

When you imagine hearing something, activation appears in the auditory cortex. Within each sensory modality, imagery activity is relatively specific. For example, if you imagine a blue stimulus, it will cause more activity in cortical regions that process color information than if you imagine a gray stimulus.

Thus, your imagination is tied to the physical world which you perceive through your senses. If you have a specific goal you want to achieve, imagine yourself achieving the goal first. Although this is not a replacement for undertaking the actual work of achieving your goal, it can help to accelerate your progress.

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 an 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 450 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.