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Historical studies of objectively measured differences in mental imagery ability

This page was created to curate "forgotten" scientific articles on the objective measurement of mental imagery differences. It will be updated casually as I find more relevant articles. If you have access to an article that is not shown here and would like to share it, please send the pdf to

CONTENTS (click to go to the associated section)

  1. Reviews

  2. Combined methods

  3. Facial EMG

  4. Respiration

  5. Eye movements

  6. Electrophysiology

  7. Skin conductance


Biofeedback, Self-Regulation, and the Patterning of Physiological Processes (click for pdf)

Gary E. Schwartz

American Scientist, 1975

Summary: Briefly reviews studies that investigate the association between cognitive events (including mental imagery) and physiological responses, including: heart rate, EEG, and facial EMG.

Combined methods

The objective study of mental imagery. I. Physiological concomitants (click for pdf)

Golla, Hutton, & Gray Walter

Journal of Mental Science, 1943

Summary: Uses a combination of respiration and alpha-EEG to objectively measure differences between "M" (reported visual imagery), "P" (reported verbal and kinaesthetic imagery), and "R" (mixed use of imagery types) groups. The M group showed more regular breathing compared to the P group. Furthermore, the M group showed "less energy" in resting occipital alpha signals compared to the P group, who showed high-energy occipital alpha across rest (both eyes open and shut) and task (mental arithmetic) conditions. The R group showed low-energy alpha at rest with eyes-open and high-energy alpha with eyes-shut, with a diminution of alpha activity during the task.

The objective study of mental imagery (click for pdf)

P. L. Short

British Journal of Psychology, 1953

Summary: Uses a combination of respiration and alpha-EEG to objectively measure differences between visualizers and verbalizers. Visualizers showed regular breathing and "blocking" of alpha rhythms, while verbalizers showed irregular breathing and persistent alpha rhythms during task performance. Individuals rarely reported using a combined verbal-sensory strategy, most preferring one or the other.

Heart rate variability and respiratory concomitants of visual and nonvisual “imagery” and cognitive style (click for pdf)

Alan D. Price

Journal of Research in Personality, 1975

Summary:  Visual imagery tasks elicit more regular heart rate and shorter respiratory cycles compared to non-visual imagery tasks. Visualizers have more regular heart rate and respiration compared to non-visualizers during a visual imagery task.

Facial EMG

Facial Expression and Imagery in Depression: An Electromyographic Study (click for pdf)

Schwartz, Fair, Salt, Mandel, & Klerman

Psychosomatic Medicine, 1976

Summary: Investigated facial muscle activity in response to imagined emotions (happy, sad) in depressed and non-depressed individuals. The authors found an attenuation of facial EMG activity for happy emotional imagery in depressed patients.


The respiratory rhythm and its relation to mechanism of thought (click for pdf)

Golla & Anotonovitch

Brain, 1929

Summary: Found differences in breathing regularity in individuals who use auditory imagery (verbal rehearsal), visual imagery, or a combination of the two during mental arithmetic. Subjective aspects of imagery supplement these findings. Irregular breathing is associated with dominantly verbal imagery, and regular breathing is associated with dominantly visual imagery.

Eye movements

Hypnotizability, Laterality of Eye-Movements and Functional Brain Assymetry (click for pdf)

Paul Bakan

Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1969

Summary: Measured dominant direction of gaze while thinking/problem solving and found that individuals with greater leftward bias in gaze direction show higher clarity of mental imagery and susceptibility to hypnosis compared to those who showed a rightward bias.

Eidetic phenomena (click for pdf)

Heinrich Klüver

Psychological Bulletin, 1932

Summary: Reports on a study by E.R. Jaensch who found that children with eidetic imagery show an "eidetic pupillary response", in that imagining light stimuli constricts the pupils and imagining dark stimuli dilates the pupils. However, at the time of writing I cannot find this study (either in its original German or translated), and this effect could not be replicated in high vs. low imagers (Paivio & Simpson 1968, click for pdf); Paivio (1973; click for pdf) suggests imagined stimuli can only dilate and not constrict pupils, although he admits that they never managed to  test eidetic imagers.


Alpha rhythms and mental imagery (click for pdf)

Kenneth H. Slatter

Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 1960

Summary: Both task-based and resting EEG alpha is associated with individual differences in "habitual" use of mental imagery and mental imagery effort. Specifically, low-amplitude resting and task-associated alpha rhythms occur in vivid and habitual visualizers, whereas high-amplitude alpha rhythms are associated with low and effortful imagery (verbalizers). These associations are not as clear in individuals who do not show a strong visual or non-visual preference.

Types of imagery and imagery types: an EEG study (click for pdf)

Gale, Morris & Lucas

British Journal of Psychology, 1972

Summary: Vivid imagers have a higher mean dominant occipital alpha frequency compared to weak imagers (but not medium imagers) during rest. This difference is attenuated (both show lower frequency occipital alpha) when instructed to produce voluntary imagery, or when presented with high-imageable versus low-imageable words.  

Occipital alpha activity of high and low visual imagers during problem solving (click for pdf)

Simpson, Paivio, & Rogers

Psychonomic Science, 1967

Summary: High imagers (measured by a behavioral task, a strategy questionnaire, and an imagery questionnaire) have generally higher mean occipital alpha amplitude compared to low imagers during rest, which is opposite to earlier findings by Golla et al (1943; click for pdf), although this could be due to procedural differences and results were determined to be inconclusive.

Skin conductance

Imagery ability and the experience of affect by free associative imagery (click for pdf)

John R. Suler

Journal of Mental Imagery, 1985

Summary: Measured electrodermal activity in high-visualizers and low-visualizers during rest (mind wandering) and during a free-associative task in which participants were asked to make associations to presented words, focusing on either pictures or other words/phrases that came to mind. High-visualizers showed higher arousal in both mind wandering and free associative conditions compared to low-visualizers.

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