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Curr Biol. 2008 Jul 8;18(13):982-6. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2008.05.048. Epub 2008 Jun 26.

The functional impact of mental imagery on conscious perception.

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  • 1Vanderbilt Vision Research Center and Department of Psychology, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee 37203, USA.


Mental imagery has been proposed to contribute to a variety of high-level cognitive functions, including memory encoding and retrieval, navigation, spatial planning, and even social communication and language comprehension. However, it is debated whether mental imagery relies on the same sensory representations as perception, and if so, what functional consequences such an overlap might have on perception itself. We report novel evidence that single instances of imagery can have a pronounced facilitatory influence on subsequent conscious perception. Either seeing or imagining a specific pattern could strongly bias which of two competing stimuli reach awareness during binocular rivalry. Effects of imagery and perception were location and orientation specific, accumulated in strength over time, and survived an intervening visual task lasting several seconds prior to presentation of the rivalry display. Interestingly, effects of imagery differed from those of feature-based attention. The results demonstrate that imagery, in the absence of any incoming visual signals, leads to the formation of a short-term sensory trace that can bias future perception, suggesting a means by which high-level processes that support imagination and memory retrieval may shape low-level sensory representations.

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