Thursday, February 03, 2011

Imagery in Front of One's Forehead

I posted briefly on this in 2006, but I continue to be struck by the following fact: When I interview people about their imagery they often report their images as seeming to be located in front of their foreheads. Often when people say this, they give me a slightly embarrassed look, as though this report surprises them too. Only a minority of subjects report imagery in front of their forehead, but it's a pretty healthy minority (rough estimate: 25%).

I don't think that I am forcing this report on subjects: At first, such reports surprised me, too. Antecedently, I would have thought the most likely possibilities to be: (1.) the image occurs nowhere in egocentric space, not seeming to be subjectively located at all; (2.) the image is subjectively experienced as inside the head; (3.) the image is subjectively experienced as before the eyes. Subjects do sometimes report (1)-(3), though not appreciably more often than in front of the forehead.

As far as I know, there is no serious study of the subjectively experienced location of imagery, including its conditions and variations. Some questions that arise:

(1.) Do people's differences in report about the subjective location of their imagery reflect real differences between people in how they experience imagery, or is the subjective location of imagery, or lack of subjective location, more or less the same for everyone but for some reason difficult to report accurately?

(2.) Can one control the subjective location of imagery? Suppose I am imagining Napoleon vanquished at Waterloo, and it seems to me that that imagery is transpiring inside my head. Can I take that very same imagery and make it transpire, instead, in front of my forehead? (Obviously, I am not talking about where the brain processes occur, but where it seems to me, subjectively, that the imagery is happening, if it seems to me that it is happening somewhere.) Can I make the image transpire down by my right toe? Can I move it over into the next room? Across town? Is there some limit to this?

(3.) Is there a difference between visually imagining an object as being some place relative to you and having one's image of that object transpiring in a particular subjective location? Getting clear on this distinction (if it is a valid distinction) seems essential to answering (2) accurately. So, for example, can I have an image in my head, or an image unlocated in subjective space, of someone sitting in the empty chair that I am (really) looking at across the room? If this distinction is hard to conceptualize, consider pictures as an analogy: I can have a picture *in my hand* of myself sitting *in that chair over there*. The picture is located in my hand; its representational content is that I am sitting in that chair over there. Is the same kind of split possible for imagery? I can imagine a mini-Napoleon engaged in a battle near my right toe, while I gaze down at my foot, but that is rather different -- isn't it? -- than having an ordinary image of Napoleon's defeat that is experientially located as transpiring by my right toe. If my imagery is experienced as inside of my head, it's not like I am imagining that little mini-Napoleon having climbed into my head, I think.

(4.) Is there interference between visual perception of outward objects from some location and the subjective location of one's imagery? So, for example, if your image is subjectively experienced as in the upper right quadrant of your visual field, are you less likely to detect an object that subtly appears in that location? (I have a vague feeling that someone has tested this, though maybe not with the distinction I articulate at (3) clearly in mind. Reminders/references appreciated. [I don't just mean Perky 1910, though that seems relevant.])

(5.) Why would in front of the forehead be a more common location in subjective space than, say, down by the cheeks? Does this reflect some cultural supposition about where images must be? (But if so, where in the culture?) Does it reflect some real phenomenon, perhaps some cognitive efficiency gained, by representing one's imagery experiences as positioned there?

8 comments:

UserGoogol said...

Regarding 5, it's fairly common for people to look up when they think. If you do a Google Image search of people thinking, people looking slightly upwards are a common motif.

It seems like there could be a connection here, although it's not particular obvious what it would be.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, I vaguely recall some research on this. I think looking down is also common, and eye gaze direction may be associated with different sorts of cognitive processes. It could be related.

gregory said...

pretty funny, pretending you never heard of the third eye or out of body experiences ...

forget the brain, it is effect, not cause ...

enjoy, gregory

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Gregory. Oddly, I hadn't thought about the connection with the third eye, but now that you point it out it seems a natural fit.

Polymath said...

Here's a tricky one: Start by lying face-up on your bed. Shut your eyes and create an image of yourself as if looking down from above. This might be slightly difficult, but if you achieve it, try moving the downward vertical gaze closer and closer to your real self. Is there a point where this simply can not be sustained?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting exercise! I find even the "zooming" process difficult and jumpy.

stephen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
stephen said...

Interesting stuff. I suspect people look to wherever there is minimal distraction. Often that's up, but I've found myself looking down toward the floor or blank wall or whatever.

I'd be astonished if the exogenous visual scene didn't compete with endogenous visualization, and am particularly curious how visualization (or explicitly non-visual attention) might impact gaze. Am not aware of any research addressing this specific point, but please feel free to email if you know of some. I can be gmailed at stephen.v.shepherd