What is the True Spectrum of Mental Imagery? Extended Interview with Sam Schwarzkopf [Member Exclusive]

What is the true spectrum of mental imagery? Neuroscientist Sam Schwarzkopf from the University of Auckland explores the depths of mental imagery with host Tom Ebeyer of the Aphantasia Network.
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Unlocks on May 28, 2024

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The Spectrum of Metal Imagery

What is the true spectrum of mental imagery? Perceptual scientist Sam Schwarzkopf from the University of Auckland in New Zealand joined us live on March 20th to explore the subjective perception of mental imagery with host Tom Ebeyer of the Aphantasia Network.

Sam Schwarzkopf, with an extensive background in neuroscience and human neuroimaging, challenges the traditional views on mental imagery. He argues that mental imagery should not be characterized solely by its vividness or detail but should also consider the internal versus external visualization experiences among individuals. For instance, while some people may “see” mental images projected in front of them, others, including Schwarzkopf, experience imagery as strictly internal, without any visual hallucination, yet still possess a detailed and pictorial representation of the concept in their “mind’s eye.”

The conversation introduces the idea of “associators” and “projectors” to illustrate the variety in how individuals process and visualize mental images, challenging the binary scale of imagery vividness. This distinction highlights two key misunderstandings: first, the incorrect belief that everyone can produce clear, detailed images in their mind that are projected before the eyes; and second, the misconception that if someone visualizes in an associative manner—meaning they don’t project those images externally yet can still create pictorial representations in the back of their mind —it’s the same as having aphantasia, which is the inability to visualize mental images at all. The last point clarifies that being an “associator” in visualization doesn’t mean one has aphantasia; it simply represents a different way of experiencing mental imagery, distinct from both vivid projection and the absence of mental images in aphantasia.

The discussion extends beyond visual to multisensory representations of imagination, exploring how our minds can conjure experiences related to sound, touch, and smell. By highlighting the diversity and subjectivity in mental imagery, Schwarzkopf aims to foster a broader, more nuanced and multi-dimensional understanding of our internal experiences. By addressing misconceptions about mental imagery and highlighting the varied experiences individuals have with their internal visualizations, this event aims to spark further research and understanding in this fascinating area.

Researcher Bio

Sam Schwarzkopf pursued undergraduate and PhD studies in neuroscience at Cardiff University, focusing on the experience-dependent plasticity of the visual cortex under Frank Sengpiel. Schwarzkopf’s postdoctoral work at the University of Birmingham shifted towards human neuroimaging and cognitive neuroscience. In 2008, he joined University College London’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging and the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience as a postdoctoral research fellow, working in Geraint Rees’s lab. Awarded an ERC Starting Grant in 2012, Schwarzkopf established his own lab at the department of Experimental Psychology and the Birkbeck-UCL Centre for Neuroimaging to study perceptual functions across the visual field. In 2017, they moved to the School of Optometry & Vision Science at the University of Auckland.

Schwarzkopf, D. S. (2023). What is the true range of mental imagery? Cortex; a Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2023.09.013