A penny for your thoughts! Patterns of fMRI activity reveal the content and the spatial topography of visual mental images

Maddalena Boccia*, Laura Piccardi, Liana Palermo, Federico Nemmi, Valentina Sulpizio, Gaspare Galati, Cecilia Guariglia

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Visual mental imagery is a complex process that may be influenced by the content of mental images. Neuropsychological evidence from patients with hemineglect suggests that in the imagery domain environments and objects may be represented separately and may be selectively affected by brain lesions. In the present study, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess the possibility of neural segregation among mental images depicting parts of an object, of an environment (imagined from a first-person perspective), and of a geographical map, using both a mass univariate and a multivariate approach. Data show that different brain areas are involved in different types of mental images. Imagining an environment relies mainly on regions known to be involved in navigational skills, such as the retrosplenial complex and parahippocampal gyrus, whereas imagining a geographical map mainly requires activation of the left angular gyrus, known to be involved in the representation of categorical relations. Imagining a familiar object mainly requires activation of parietal areas involved in visual space analysis in both the imagery and the perceptual domain. We also found that the pattern of activity in most of these areas specifically codes for the spatial arrangement of the parts of the mental image. Our results clearly demonstrate a functional neural segregation for different contents of mental images and suggest that visuospatial information is coded by different patterns of activity in brain areas involved in visual mental imagery. Hum Brain Mapp 36:945-958, 2015.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)945-958
Number of pages14
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Issue number3
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 31 Oct 2014


  • functional magnetic resonance imaging
  • imagery
  • multivariate pattern analysis
  • nontopological images
  • topological images
  • visuo-spatial mental imagery


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