Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Sensory Imagery in Individuals Who Are Blind and Sighted: Examining Unimodal and Multimodal Forms

Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Sensory Imagery in Individuals Who Are Blind and Sighted: Examining Unimodal and Multimodal Forms

Article excerpt

Mental images are commonly understood as representations in the mind of a perceptual experience when that perceptual experience is not physically present. Mental images generated in response to concrete nouns are generally reported as being in all sense modalities, rich and feeling as vivid as the actual perceptual experience (see, for example, Cornoldi, Calore, & Pra-Baldi, 1979; Johnson, 1980; Kerr & Johnson, 1991; but also see Ellis, 1991). However, the ability of people to accurately describe their cognitive experience has been challenged, and the use of self-report as a source of evidence for exploring sensory function in imagery has been criticized (see, for example, Tye, 1991). Nevertheless, recent neuroscientific research has validated people's subjective experience by confirming that the process of imagining does indeed involve activation of brain areas similar to those used in perception (see, for example, Halpren & Zatorre, 1999; Kosslyn et al.,1999). Furthermore, images self-reported as more vivid are associated with stronger activation in sensory areas of the brain (Olivetti Belardinelli et al., 2009). Behavioral paradigms have also demonstrated that, for both blind and sighted individuals, subjective and objective measures of imagery are disrupted by concurrent activation of the related perceptual areas (Eardley & Pring, 2011).

Conway (1988) suggests that imagery might serve to facilitate the retrieval of information from autobiographical memory. Imagery mnemonics, for example, when participants are trained to rapidly generate distinct images for verbally presented action words to facilitate memory for a task that they may be asked to carry out (Kaschel et al., 2002), have also been identified as an important tool in the rehabilitation of memory in both braindamaged patients (Kaschel et al., 2002) and in research on aging populations (Verhaeghen, Marcoen, & Goossens, 1992). Nevertheless, research has suggested that it is visual imagery that has a privileged role in cognition. For example, in autobiographical memory, visual imagery is the most potent trigger for the generation of (Williams, Healy, & Ellis, 1999; but see also Eardley & Pring, 2006) and for the process of remembering (see, for example, Anderson, 1993, cited by Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000) autobiographical events. Indeed, visual imagery mnemonics are most often used in the rehabilitation of memory (see, for example, Kaschel et al., 2002; Verhaeghen et al., 1992).

Although visual imagery is considered central to imagery experience, imagery facilitates memory performance irrespective of visual experience (Cornoldi, De Beni, Roncari, & Romano, 1989; Jonides, Kahn, & Rozin, 1975). People without sight also rate images for concrete objects of which they have direct experience as being more vivid (more vibrant or rich) than for either objects with which they have limited experience or for abstract items (Cornoldi et al., 1979). Furthermore, more vivid images are better remembered irrespective of visual experience (Eardley & Pring, 2011).

Kerr and Johnson (1991) compared the ease or difficulty with which participants who were either profoundly visually impaired from infancy or sighted were able to generate an image in response to 161 nouns (imageability). They showed that more than half the words on their list were rated as more imageable by individuals with profound visual impairment from infancy than they were by those who were sighted, in a range of sense modalities. Researchers have suggested that, whereas sighted people might rely on visual imagery, people without sight are able to compensate for the lack of vision by having stronger imagery in nonvisual modalities (see, for example, Noordzij, Zuidhoek, & Postma, 2007). This suggestion is supported by circumstantial evidence showing that congenitally blind and early blind individuals also develop enhanced perceptual skills in audition (see, for example, Roder et al. …

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