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Mental Photography


As photographers, image is our object of worship. Photography, more than any kind of art, exalts the image and makes it “immortal”. A photographer’s mission is to capture exactly what he sees using his medium: the camera. But does an image exist only as a representation of reality? As an exact copy of what really happened in front of the lens? If that is the case there must be a brain trick involved since the actual scene is always three-dimensional, while the photograph is –at least up until now- two-dimensional. And yet when we see an image our brain seems to add a third dimension so that we can imagine the real scene! Another aspect that I find interesting and puzzling at the same time is that there must be a second level in both the creation and the viewing of a photograph that has to do with our thoughts about it. What about thinking about a scene after you have taken the picture? Even more what about thinking about a picture before it has even come into existence? Can we call these thoughts images? The question remained in my mind for a long time. What fascinated me was the fact that I could have a photograph in my head and work on it, changing it the way I wanted it, without having to see it. I could also imagine scenes that I would like to take pictures of without having seen them. Many of them never became images but when I actually took a picture that I had imagined I felt as if I could translate my own thoughts into a language that everybody could understand: an image. I find this game of what is real and what is not really intriguing. Since a camera is a way of imprinting reality exactly as it is, then what are these images inside my head? Are they less real? Konstantinos Noulis

Mental imagery A mental image is a representation of an existing one that can be considered as extension of perception. It could be said that a mental image is “what the brain sees” when the perceived object is no longer present. It is also possible that mental images are created without even the existence of a perceived object. These are formed by our so-called “imagination”. (Kostaridou-Efklides, 1992) A mental image is an experience that, on most occasions, significantly resembles the experience of perceiving an object, event or scene, but occurs when the relevant object, event or scene is no longer present to the senses. Though mental images can derive from all of our senses (there are for example auditory images and olfactory images), in humans vision is the most developed sense, so when we use the term “mental images” we refer to visual mental images. (Wikipedia) Mental images can be formed in the human brain either by direct visual contact with an object or a situation or by the recall of information about an object from long term memory. According to cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, mental images are the representation of our experiences of the world. An important characteristic of mental images is that they can be combined and associated with other appropriate mental images so as to synthesize new ones. This function gives us the advantage of creating an image of our complex environment, thus giving us the opportunity to form a theory of how the world works. This ability of ours can be described as “seeing the bigger picture”. This can be achieved by combining similar mental images to form likely sequences without having to experience the outcome. This mechanism provides our minds with the ability to expect and predict events and helps us estimate situations which we haven’t experienced.

As mentioned above mental images are an extent of perception and not an exact copy of it. To explain this, Stephen Kosslyn refers to two different levels of a mental image. The first one has to do with the codification of the details of the perceived object, such as its dimensions and characteristics along with the proportions. The second level has to do with the codification of the “spirit”, the “spine” of the perceived scene without paying attention to the details. This is a very important procedure since it is the starting point for the creation of new mental images. If a mental image doesn’t make it to the second level it will soon fade and will eventually be erased from our memory. What do mental images look like? Mental images have many similarities to perceived ones; this is only reasonable as, in many cases they derive from perception. They occupy a certain space; they are changeable and quite realistic. The space of a mental image has raised issues in the field of cognitive science for quite some time. In order to explore this mysterious area, scientists Roger Shepard and Jacqueline Metzler (1971) and Steven Pinker (1980) performed a series of tests where they asked participants to mentally rotate three-dimensional objects. Their findings led them to the conclusion that mental images are formed in three-dimensional space that resembles perceived space.

Mental images and photographs Can we claim that a mental image is a kind of a photograph taken by our brain? This is not true. A mental image is a dynamic element that can be different for different people. The human brain doesn’t “take a picture”; it doesn’t keep the whole image as it was at the time that our eyes saw it. What our brain does, using its mechanisms, is that it keeps the necessary elements that help both in maintaining an image as well as creating a new one. These elements, mediated by our experiences and our memories create our image of the world. Sapfo Ichtiaroglou


Scientific support on Psychological Theories Sapfo Ichtiaroglou, BSc in Psychology, Aristotle Uinverisity of Thessaloniki Photography, Post-production & book editing Konstantinos Noulis BA student, Photography, University of East London

Mental Photography by Konstantinos Noulis  
Mental Photography by Konstantinos Noulis  

A photographic experiment on how we perceive and recreate the world in our minds