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Neuroimage. 2012 Feb 15;59(4):4064-73. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.10.055. Epub 2011 Oct 24.

Disentangling visual imagery and perception of real-world objects.

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Laboratory of Brain and Cognition, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA.


During mental imagery, visual representations can be evoked in the absence of "bottom-up" sensory input. Prior studies have reported similar neural substrates for imagery and perception, but studies of brain-damaged patients have revealed a double dissociation with some patients showing preserved imagery in spite of impaired perception and others vice versa. Here, we used fMRI and multi-voxel pattern analysis to investigate the specificity, distribution, and similarity of information for individual seen and imagined objects to try and resolve this apparent contradiction. In an event-related design, participants either viewed or imagined individual named object images on which they had been trained prior to the scan. We found that the identity of both seen and imagined objects could be decoded from the pattern of activity throughout the ventral visual processing stream. Further, there was enough correspondence between imagery and perception to allow discrimination of individual imagined objects based on the response during perception. However, the distribution of object information across visual areas was strikingly different during imagery and perception. While there was an obvious posterior-anterior gradient along the ventral visual stream for seen objects, there was an opposite gradient for imagined objects. Moreover, the structure of representations (i.e. the pattern of similarity between responses to all objects) was more similar during imagery than perception in all regions along the visual stream. These results suggest that while imagery and perception have similar neural substrates, they involve different network dynamics, resolving the tension between previous imaging and neuropsychological studies.

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