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In the philosophy of mind, neuroscience, and cognitive science, a mental image is an experience that, on most occasions, significantly resembles the experience of "perceiving" some object, event, or scene but occurs when the relevant object, event, or scene is not actually present to the senses. There are sometimes episodes, particularly on falling asleep (hypnagogic imagery) and waking up (hypnopompic imagery), when the mental imagery may be dynamic, phantasmagoric, and involuntary in character, repeatedly presenting identifiable objects or actions, spilling over from waking events, or defying perception, presenting a kaleidoscopic field, in which no distinct object can be discerned. Mental imagery can sometimes produce the same effects as would be produced by the behavior or experience imagined.
The nature of these experiences, what makes them possible, and their function (if any) have long been subjects of research and controversy in philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, and, more recently, neuroscience. As contemporary researchers use the expression, mental images or imagery can comprise information from any source of sensory input; one may experience auditory images, olfactory images, and so forth. However, the majority of philosophical and scientific investigations of the topic focus on visual mental imagery. It has sometimes been assumed that, like humans, some types of animals are capable of experiencing mental images. Due to the fundamentally introspective (reflective) nature of the phenomenon, it has been difficult to assess whether or not non-human animals experience mental imagery.
Philosophers such as George Berkeley and David Hume, and early experimental psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt and William James, understood ideas in general to be mental images. Today, it is very widely believed that much imagery functions as mental representations (or mental models), playing an important role in memory and thinking. William Brant (2013, p. 12) traces the scientific use of the phrase "mental images" back to John Tyndall's 1870 speech called the "Scientific Use of the Imagination". Some have suggested that images are best understood to be, by definition, a form of inner, mental, or neural representation. Others reject the view that the image experience may be identical with (or directly caused by) any such representation in the mind or the brain, but do not take account of the non-representational forms of imagery.