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What is Visual Imagery?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Visual imagery is information which passes through the brain as though something is being perceived, when nothing is actually happening. Someone may experience sight, smell, sound, and touch as a result of visual imagery when none of these stimuli are present. Also known as a mental image, this imagery is a topic of great interest in psychology and neuroscience, and it has a number of potentially very interesting applications.

Many people are familiar with the idea of visual imagery; they might think of it as the imagination. Sometimes, it is possible to muster up a very real scene inside the mind. For example, one might imagine a sunset on the beach and hear the waves, smell the seaweed, feel a breeze, and clearly see the rich colors of the sunset as the Sun drops below the horizon. All of this imagery is going on entirely inside the mind, no matter how real it feels.

Imagination actually appears to play an important role in brain function. Children, for example, often use imagination as they are acquiring knowledge to help them process and reconcile the knowledge. Imagination is also a vital trait for people who make their living through creative work such as writing, painting, or sculpting.

In psychology, visual imagery has a long use in therapy. People learning stress management techniques are often encouraged to use visual imagery to take a mental vacation out of a stressful situation, for example. People may be guided through visualizations as part of the therapeutic process when they process trauma or deal with other issues. A psychologist may also use this imagery as a form of assessment, to see how well a client is functioning.

Guided imagery has also been used in meditation by many cultures for centuries. Meditation is a practice especially associated with Asian religious traditions, but in fact people in all cultures have a history of meditation. Some devout Catholics, for example, visualize during prayer to help God get the message, while meditation and the imagination are also harnessed in Native American prayer ceremonies.

Neurologists are often interested in scanning the brains of people who are very skilled at visual imagery, to learn more about which areas of the brain activate during imagination sessions. People may also be asked to visualize during brain scans which are designed to assess the extent of damage or injury. People also use visual imagery every time they read a book and feel like they are living in a story, or whenever they daydream.

TheHealthBoard is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a TheHealthBoard researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon996471 — On Sep 05, 2016


By TrogJoe19 — On Feb 26, 2011


I think that we need to be careful in assuming that all visions and images are schizophrenic. When they are irrational and have negative effects they are certainly wrong, but when they are based on faith in truths beyond mere conscious thought, I think they can be more than just delusions.

By GigaGold — On Feb 26, 2011

When we see images of things that are not there, our brain is probably discerning patterns, which is what it is designed to do. The problem is when we discern patterns that aren't really there. On a small scale, this tendency is harmless, but when we start to project our inner presumptions on the outside world, it can lead to delusion and schizophrenia. This is why people with these particular mental disorders can truly see things. It is as though they are dreaming while awake.

By Leonidas226 — On Feb 23, 2011

The eye truly is the window to the soul. It is actually just a lens, or window, with the brain directly behind it. This means that we directly use our brain to see, and that all the power of our mind is right behind our eyeballs. This is the nearest that our mind gets to directly "seeing" the outside world. All other senses are much more indirect.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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