Individual differences shape the content of visual representations

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Visually perceiving a stimulus activates a pictorial representation of that item in the brain, but how pictorial is the representation of a stimulus in the absence of visual stimulation? Here I address this question with a review of the literatures on visual imagery (VI), visual working memory (VWM), and visual preparatory templates, all of which require activating visual information in the absence of sensory stimulation. These processes have historically been studied separately, but I propose that they can provide complimentary evidence for the pictorial nature of their contents. One major challenge in studying the contents of visual representations is the discrepant findings concerning the extent of overlap (both cortical and behavioral) between externally and internally sourced visual representations. I argue that these discrepancies may in large part be due to individual differences in VI vividness and precision, the specific representative abilities required to perform a task, appropriateness of visual preparatory strategies, visual cortex anatomy, and level of expertise with a particular object category. Individual differences in visual representative abilities greatly impact task performance and may influence the likelihood of experiences such as intrusive VI and hallucinations, but research still predominantly focuses on uniformities in visual experience across individuals. In this paper I review the evidence for the pictorial content of visual representations activated for VI, VWM, and preparatory templates, and highlight the importance of accounting for various individual differences in conducting research on this topic.

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