Einstein's jacket: evidence for long-term perceptual specificity in mental imagery

David G. Pearson, James Hollings

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


To what extent are visual fantasies constrained by our perceptual experience of the real world? Our study exploits the fact that people’s knowledge of the appearance of individuals from the early 20th Century (e.g., Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill) derives predominantly from viewing black-and-white media images. An initial experiment shows that mental imagery for individuals from this period are experienced as significantly less colourful than imagery for individuals from the era of colour media. A second experiment manipulated whether participants were instructed to explicitly imagine using colour or not (i.e., “imagine Albert Einstein wearing a green jacket” vs. “imagine Albert Einstein wearing a jacket”). Results show that colour manipulation only influences imagery for black-and-white era individuals, with no comparable effect on imagery for colour era individuals. This finding is replicated in a third experiment that includes an additional control condition of imagining generic characters (i.e., “Imagine a knight wearing a cloak” vs. “imagine a knight wearing a red cloak”). Again, only imagery for black-and-white era individuals is affected by the colour manipulation. Overall these results provide evidence for long-term perceptual specificity effects in mental imagery. We argue that visual fantasies can be constrained by surface features of underlying representations in memory, even when imagining something we have never directly perceived.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)148-154
Number of pages7
JournalConsciousness and Cognition
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2013


  • mental imagery
  • mental manipulation
  • perceptual specificity
  • long-term memory


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