Foundations Of Cognitive Science

Depictive Theory

Relative complexity evidence obtained from tasks like mental rotation and image scanning provided the basis for a prominent account of mental imagery that known as the depictive theory (Kosslyn, 1980, 1994; Kosslyn, Thompson, & Ganis, 2006).  This theory is based on the claim that mental images are not merely internal representations that describe visuospatial information (as would be the case with words or with logical propositions), but instead depict this information because the format of an image is quasi-pictorial.  That is, while a mental image is not claimed to literally be a picture in the head, it nevertheless represents content by resemblance. “There is a correspondence between parts and spatial relations of the representation and those of the object; this structural mapping, which confers a type of resemblance, underlies the way images convey specific content. In this respect images are like pictures. Unlike words and symbols, depictions are not arbitrarily paired with what they represent” (Kosslyn, Thompson, & Ganis, 2006, p. 44).


  1. Kosslyn, S. M. (1980). Image and Mind. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.
  2. Kosslyn, S. M. (1994). Image and Brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  3. Kosslyn, S. M., Thompson, W. L., & Ganis, G. (2006). The Case For Mental Imagery. New York: Oxford University Press.

(Added October 2010)