Mental Imagery, Memory, Experientials & Consciousness

PROLOGUE:  I just finished drying after a nice hot shower, still in my robe, highly motivated to report on my insights gained while showering. I asked Eloise whether she could experience showering in her mental imagery. She replied in the affirmative and also confirmed she could experience change in showering temperature in her mental imagery of showering. She also confirmed that her mental imagery of the pleasures of showering motivated her to shower frequently. My lack of such imagery results in no motivation to shower, and the surprise, each time, to the great pleasure of showing. Also, my weak skin perception doesn’t motivate me to shower due to “coatings” on my skin, whose perception motivates others to shower.

As I write this I have a conceptual memory of the efforts needed to shower while wintering over at Byrd Station in the Antarctic in 1961. We had to go to the surface and cut snow blocks to put in the snow melter to give me water for showering. Excess heat from our generating system melted snow for station use. Snow on the glacier surface has the composition of Styrofoam, as it results from packed windblown snow – the Antarctic is actually a desert with very little new snow. None of the above memories are experienced in mental imagery. They are experienced as I read what I write, but never a replay of the original experiences.

This experience in the shower triggered a cascade of conceptual thoughts about the relationships between mental imagery (which I lack in all sensory modalities), memory, experientials, and “consciousness”.


During the era when behaviorism dominated psychological research the topic of mental imagery was taboo in the professional psychological literature. I was one of the first to subscribe to the new Journal on Mental Imagery. I was surprised to discover that most reported research asked subjects “what did you experience”, not “describe your experience”. They would report “I was riding a horse jumping over a fence”, never “I felt the wind in my face , lifting from the saddle, but viewing myself on the horse from the right”.

From my readings about “consciousness” I can’t recall any reporting of sensory details of actual conscious experiences.  Extreme conscious experiences, such as psychedelic experiences, out-of-body experiences, and near-death-experiences may have some experiential descriptors – but are seldom explored. A light in a tunnel is a more conceptual than sensory descriptive. Artists, such as van Gogh, may paint what they are actually visually experiencing. The mental imagery of deep mediators is seldom described – and often cited as beyond description.

Talking with others, I recently discovered that mental imagery is often an overlay on direct visual perception, but usually not discriminated. In that I lack visual mental imagery with eyes closed, it is not present as an overlay on my eyes open visual perceptions.

Even phenomenology, the professional study of direct experience, seems to avoid details of the experience and focuses more on the conceptual analysis of the content and process. I am not well versed in phenomenology, and may be wrong. Reading phenomenologists never sparked my interest to read more.

Since mental imagery is so important to most people, it is strange that there is little verbal interaction about it. Medical professionals ask you to rate your pain on a scale of zero to ten; but 5 may be quite different between persons.

It is a frequent cliche to query whether my experience of red is the same as your experience of red. It is less frequently known that different cultures have different categories for named colors – yet they can all match colors on the spectrum, but give many color experiences the same name.

A few decades ago I discovered that research in reading never asked subjects “what was your experience” reading a passage, but “what did you experience” that sought a conceptual label for the experience and not a quality description of the experience. The role of mental imagery in reading was ignored in the research. I am not aware of what is done today. For those with powerful mental imagery, reading a novel involves viewing the movie in mental imagery. When I asked imagers what they experienced when reading highly conceptual passages, the most common response was “nothing”; which results in many with quality visual imagery avoiding reading conceptual literature (an ignored crisis in reading).


Today there is attention to those who have extraordinary memories – able to tell conceptually what happened on any given date. This leads to a naive discussion of how memories are stored and accessed in the brain. Strange, there is no reporting on how these special persons actually experience their memories. There is evidence that they re-experience, but the nature of the re-experience is not explored.

I recently discovered that the experience of grief involves a persistent mental image of the person recently deceased. Since I have no mental imagery I have never experience grief – unless I focus on a picture of the person or animal deceased. “Memories” are not only of events.


I use quotes for “consciousness” because of the vast variation of meaning given to the term, which I experience, but which seems not to be observed by those using the term. Two major different meanings associate with experientials (“experience”) and agency. The term “experience” also has different meanings: experientials-in-mind and having-done (experienced) some activity, place, or thing.

Different cultures (and persons within cultures) can differ greatly as to the role of “consciousness” with “reality” and “truth”.

I wonder why few persons recognize the inversion of significance in the use of sub- and un- prefixes for “consciousness”. An analog for me would be to describe a tree as leaf, sub-leaf (branches), and un-leaf (trunk and roots). Some Freudian psychotherapists “view” the unconscious as only a repository of repressed, negative thoughts and ignore it as the font of creativity. Adherents of “Eastern” beliefs resist any attempts by “materialist, reductionist, false science” to explain life and consciousness as emergent from matter/energy systems. Some believe our experiences of objective reality are illusions within faulty consciousness. I am not here singling out those believers, as contemporary scientists are equally narrow in their attention to  the “reality of experientials”. Both beliefs systems demand a single logically consistent explanatory system for the “whole of reality”, while ignoring that an alternative exists, utilized in quantum physics as the principle of complementarity of perspectives.


The above is relevant in context to a critical query: Is our contemporary comprehension of “human nature”, human change, and humankind adequate to guide us in surviving/thriving our Crisis-or-Crises?

Is there a massive gap between our Sci/Tech of systems without humans as components (physics, chemistry, biology) and our Sci/Tech of systems where humans are the primary components?

If so, what is blocking us from this realization and from taking actions to remedy the situation?

Author: nuet

01/24/1935. BS-physics RPI 1956; MS-physics UofChicago 1958; PhD-physics Yale 1965; PhD-Edu Psy Uof MInnesota 1970. Auroral Research Byrd Station, Antarctica 11/1960-02/1962. MINNEMAST curriculum dev 1964-68. Woodstock. faculty Pima Community College, Tucson 1974-1997. Transdisciplinary scientist, philosopher, educator, futurist, activist. PC user since 1982. "Wife". daughter, 2 grandsons. 5 dogs & 7 cats. Lacks mental imagery in all sensory domains.