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The human imagination: the cognitive neuroscience of visual mental imagery


Mental imagery can be advantageous, unnecessary and even clinically disruptive. With methodological constraints now overcome, research has shown that visual imagery involves a network of brain areas from the frontal cortex to sensory areas, overlapping with the default mode network, and can function much like a weak version of afferent perception. Imagery vividness and strength range from completely absent (aphantasia) to photo-like (hyperphantasia). Both the anatomy and function of the primary visual cortex are related to visual imagery. The use of imagery as a tool has been linked to many compound cognitive processes and imagery plays both symptomatic and mechanistic roles in neurological and mental disorders and treatments.

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Fig. 1: A top-down general model of voluntary mental imagery: a reverse hierarchy.
Fig. 2: Graphical depiction showing the two streams — bottom-up perception and top-down voluntary imagery.
Fig. 3: Mapping out the different types of visual imagery — voluntary, involuntary (associative) and involuntary (local perceptual).
Fig. 4: Theoretical representation of visual imagery of a square, showing possible interaction between the strength of the top-down imagery signal and noise in the visual cortex.
Fig. 5: Graphical depiction of the cognitive processes related to mental imagery.


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The author thanks R. Keogh, R. Koenig-Robert and A. Dawes for helpful feedback and discussion on this paper. This paper, and some of the work discussed in it, was supported by Australian National Health and Medical Research Council grants APP1024800, APP1046198 and APP1085404, a Career Development Fellowship APP1049596 and an Australian Research Council discovery project grant DP140101560.

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Peer review informationNature Reviews Neuroscience thanks D. Kavanagh, J. Hohwy and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Reverse directionality

The reverse direction of neural information flow, for example, from the top-down, as opposed to the bottom-up.

Voxel-wise models of perception

Magnetic resonance imaging and functional magnetic resonance imaging decoding methods that are constrained by or based on individual voxel responses to perception, which are then used to decode imagery.

Spatial transformations

Transformations in a spatial domain.


The conscious sense or feeling of something, different from detection.

Schizotypal personality disorder

A mental disorder characterized by social anxiety, thought disorder, paranoid ideation, derealization and transient psychosis.

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Pearson, J. The human imagination: the cognitive neuroscience of visual mental imagery. Nat Rev Neurosci 20, 624–634 (2019).

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