The mental imagery group focuses on our ability to internally simulate what it would be like to experience objects, scenes and events in the absence of direct sensory stimulation. Although the “visual” impressions we derive from such acts may seem less detailed and appear to fade faster than when we look at things in the “real” world, we still experience them as quite realistic.
In the mental imagery group, a novel eye-tracking method has been developed to study such perceptual simulations in space and over time. In a series of studies it has been shown that eye movements spontaneously occur when a scene is recalled from memory and that such eye movements closely correspond to spatial relationships and content from the original scene. Remarkably, it also appears that such eye movements to “nothing” are not merely a fascinating epiphenomenon but indeed play an active role in the internal simulations that constitute our mental-imagery experiences. For instance, it has been demonstrated that manipulations of what people do with their gaze can alter their visualizations and either facilitate or impair their formation and scanning of visual episodes.
Example of eye movement patterns for one and the same person after she has inspected a picture (left) and after she has orally described the same picture looking at a blank screen (right).
Johansson, R. & Johansson, M. (2013). Look here, eye movements play a functional role in memory retrieval. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797613498260
Johansson, R., Holsanova, J., & Holmqvist, K. (2013). Using Eye Movements and Spoken Discourse as Windows to Inner Space. In C. Paradis, J. Hudson, & U. Magnusson. (Eds.). The Construal of Spatial Meaning: Windows into Conceptual Space, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp 9-28.
Johansson, R., Holsanova, J., Dewhurst, R., & Holmqvist, K. (2012). Eye movements during scene recollection have a functional role, but they are not reinstatements of those produced during encoding. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 38(5), 1289-1314.
Johansson, R., Holsanova, J., & Holmqvist, K. (2011). The dispersion of eye movements during visual imagery is related to individual differences in spatial imagery ability. In L. Carlson, C. Hölscher, & T. Shipley (Eds.), Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1200-1205). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.
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Johansson, R., Holsanova, J., & Holmqvist, K. (2006). Pictures and Spoken Descriptions Elicit Similar Eye Movements During Mental Imagery, Both in Light and in Complete Darkness. Cognitive Science, 30:6, 1053–1079.
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