10 Types of Mental Imagery You Can Experience and Learn to Use

We experience many different types of imagery. Those who wish to create, innovate, and clear the fog of confusion, know how to activate and use them. But to do that, one must first understand the different types you can experience.

Written by Murray Johannsen. I welcome connections via LinkedIn or directly from this website

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What is Mental Imagery? 3 Characteristics Worth Knowing

 “A single correct image is worth more than tons of verbiage, which overloads and restricts the mind.” — (Garfield, 1984. page 80)

Thomas Cole (1841-1848): The Architect's Dream. One thing that separates a vision and the dream is that leaders bring about their vision in the real world.
Thomas Cole (1841-1848): The Architect’s Dream. One thing that separates a vision and a dream is that leaders bring about their vision in the real world.

One way to define mental imagery is according to its characteristics. According to Cratty (1983), one can have different experiences depending on sensory modes, controllability, and vividness.

Numbers of Sensory Modes

n this case, whether the imagery has other senses embedded within it. For example, images often have different sensory modes, such as sounds and feelings. It’s not unusual for imagery to bring up emotions such as fear or happiness.


Definition: Whether the image is manipulated by zooming, enlarging, rotating, shrinking, etc. In a daydream, everything is controllable. However, most people passively experience dreams with little control over what is occurring.


Definition: The degree of clarity of the image, whether it is fuzzy or clear and unambiguous. Many people start with imagery being vague. And then, through practice, the mental imagery becomes more vivid.

Ten Types of Imagery

In contrast to physical objects, mental images have great flexibility and mutability. There are seven kinds of mental imagery.

Image by Murray Johannsen. Types of Imagery in The Sleep-Waking Cycle

1. Hypnagogic

Images experienced just before sleep. These are images usually highly vivid. To use these images, you must be profoundly relaxed and remain vigilant by maintaining a certain level of attention. Most people skip this stage by going straight from the waking state to being asleep.

2. Hypnopompic

Images experienced just before waking. Again, these images are incredibly vivid and tend more toward actions one might take during the day. Another type of use relates to reviewing and rerunning your dreams.

3. Dream Imagery

Adrien Guignet: Joseph explains Pharaoh's dream
Adrien Guignet: Joseph explains Pharaoh’s dream

Everyone dreams, but few people remember them. While a few outliers think dreams have no meaning, most experts would say that a dream packs significant importance in the form of images.

4. Waking Imagery

Image by: Diego Delso. Under license CC BY-SA 3.0
Image by: Diego Delso. Under license CC BY-SA 3.0

This is the most common type of image we experience. We see a picture with the “mind’s eye.” This waking imagery is very subtle. Often we are not even aware of it.

5. Symbolic Imagery

Symbols are fascinating images because they have at least two meanings. The first is the obvious one — the literal meaning. Money, for example, essentially buys things. This is the focus of the economists. But they typically miss a second, more subtle meaning.

This is also figurative meaning — hidden meaning — a meaning people understand but may not realize even exists. Take money, for example. It could stand for greed (love of money). This is commonly seen in capitalist countries. Another meaning is security. Money frees you of specific worries. And finally, it gives you status. For some reason, many think a billionaire is worthy o four respect and admiration. Why? Because they have lots of money.

By Oscar Grüner / Verlag Friedrich Wolfrum & Co
By Oscar Grüner / Verlag Friedrich Wolfrum & Co

The symbolic meaning is common in dreams. Take the example of a house with three levels. It could represent your actual house, the one you live in. But it could also mean your mind: the ground floor is the Ego, while the basement represents the unconscious. But then, what might the second story represent? A part of the mind like the Superego? Something else? 

6. Mystical Imagery

James Tissot (1836–1902): The Vision of Saint Joseph

Throughout history, famous religious leaders such as Paul, Mohammed, Buddha, the Sufi prophets, and Christian saints such as Mother Teresa have experienced extraordinary images — images with a powerful psychological and emotional impact. It’s not only famous people, but many ordinary people have similar experiences. In many cases, these images include symbols that have hidden meanings attached to them. Here is one example.

In 1947 Mother Teresa was shown a vision in three parts. In the first scene, she sees the painful plight of the poor. And she understands that spiritual poverty was hidden beneath the material one.

In the second scene, Mother Teresa saw the same crowd of the poor, but there were more words. So it goes: Our Lady (Mary?) was there in the midst of them, and Mother Teresa was kneeling at her side; she heard her say: “Take care of them…they are mine…bring them to Jesus…carry them to Jesus…fear not…teach them to say the rosary…the family rosary and all will be well…fear not…Jesus and I will be with you and your children.”

In the third scene was the same crowd again, and they were covered in darkness. There, amid a gloomy crowd that seemed unaware of His presence, was Jesus on the Cross. Our Lady was before Him…and Jesus said to Mother Teresa: “I have asked you…she, My Mother has asked you. Will you refuse to do this for me…to take care of them, to bring them to Me?” (O’Brien, 2008)

Image by: Tony Bowdan. Statue of Mother Teresa

These are not the only types of dreams that have an impact; we see the same with vision.

7. The Leaders’ Vision

“You face a choice in life. You can do what parents tell you, and the bosses tell you, or you can define a vision for yourself.” — Murray Johannsen.

Arthur Bowen Davies (1862–1928): Visions of Glory

All people have fantasies, many have dreams, but few have a vision. A vision is not a dream; it is not a fantasy. For mental imagery to be considered a vision, there must be a focus on:

Having imagination means first seeing something that is yet to exist. But it could exist if the right actions were taken. For example, someone might imagine what would happen before meeting with their boss. This is an essential aspect of being a visionary leader. To be a vision, the imagery:

a. Must Focus on the Future

The English language has many words with about the same meaning as vision. These include:

  • Foresight,
  • Insight,
  • Imagination,
  • Prescience,
  • Forethought,
  • Revelation,
  • Prophecy, and
  • Expectations.

b. Motivate Action

Internal forces drive leaders. Those with a leadership vision possess tremendous energy — something that keeps moving them forward day after day, month after month, year after year.

When people speak of having a leadership vision, they typically use it in two different ways:

  • It is the path, 
  • For others, a destination.

In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl once described such a vision. In Frankl’s case, it came to him when he wallowed in the misery of daily existence in a concentration camp during World War II. While wallowing in the pain of despair, he saw himself presenting a lecture in a university setting about the psychology of the concentration camp. It was enough to keep him going in the middle of hell. And sure enough, years later, this very thing happened.

8. Archetypal Imagery

Freya and the Dwarves – Illustration by Harry George Theaker for Children’s Stories from the Northern Legends by M. Dorothy Belgrave and Hilda Hart, 1920

Carl Jung (1968,1989) believed that certain types of imagery from the unconscious were not just random; there were patterns, and these patterns are reflected in the archetypes. Of course, there are many more than twelve, but these archetypes are an excellent place to start

These images are sometimes captured stories, especially those that stand the test of time. And so, these become part of the myths that get passed down from generation to generation.

9. Goal Imagery

Imagery-Alice in Wonderland

This image is consciously selected and used for specific purposes, such as visualizing a sold sign on a piece of property you’re trying to sell. Goal imagery aims to “teach” the mind to engage in particular behaviors or to reach a specific goal.

For example, to stop smoking, you might conjure up an image of pink, healthy lungs. But you could also use more abstract imagery that could show a red circle with a red bar slashing through it superimposed over a lit cigarette.

When facing a choice between seeing the positive (healthy lungs) and negating the opposite (red circle through a cigarette), experts think it best to go with the positive.

10. Process Imagery

Image by: SD Dirk: High Jump Triton Invitational 2011

Mental imagery combines a picture of the final goal—perhaps winning a golf tournament— with one of the processes by which that goal is achieved—mentally practicing the shots needed to perfect a golf game. Some examples are below.

I never his a shot without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie. First, I “see” the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting high up on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes, and I “see” the ball going there: its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behavior on landing. Then there is a fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality. (Jack Nicklauss, 1974)

For years, Fran Tarkenton, an NFL quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, used to practice mentally before each game.

This week, he must think “Pittsburgh” and nothing else. He must see that Steeler defense in his dreams, every one of them, knowing their names, numbers, bodies moves. He must be able to know who is chasing him by the sound of the footsteps and which way to turn to evade him, for every man has his weakness. He must see those linebackers eyeing him as they backtrack into pass coverage, know their relative speeds and effectiveness, and know just how many steps each one will take on specific defensive calls so that he can find the right hole at the right time.

By Friday, I’m running whole blocks of plays in my head. . . I’m trying to visualize every game situation, every defense they’re going to throw atm. I tell myself, “What will I do on their five-yard line and it’s third and goal to go, and our short passing game hasn’t been going too well, and their line looks like a wall, and we’re six points behind?” (Kloboucher, 1976)

And finally, “If I had a play in my mind but muffed it on the court, I’d go over it repeatedly in my head, searching for details I’d missed. I’d goofed because I’d overlooked a critical detail in my mind, so I’d go back to check my model.” (Russel, 1979)

Don’t be concerned if you “see” only a fragment of an image. That fragment can trigger a subconscious association with the big picture, which very subtly brings in and involves more of your senses.

The most common misconception about mental imagery is that you must be able to visualize with great clarity and vividness to be effective. In fact, the vividness of imagery is not nearly as important as control of it.


To learn how to use your mind and to increase your performance, you are going to need to understand and use the different types of imagery. Most of these can be changed. Many are associated with creativity, others still, motivate us.

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Cratty, Bryant (1983). Psychology in Contemporary Sport: Guidelines For Coaches and Athletes,  2nd Edition. page 160.

Frankl, Victor (2006). Man’s Search For Meaning. Beacon Press.

Garfield, Charles & Bennett, Hal (1984). Peak Performance: Mental Training Techniques of the World’s Greatest Athletes. Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher.

Jung, Carl (1989). Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. Princeton University.

Jung, Carl (1968). Man and His Symbols. Dell Mass Market Paperback.

Kloboucher, Jay (1976). Tarkenton. New York: Harper and Row.

Nicklauss, Jack (1974). Golf My Way. New York: Simon and Schuster.

O’Bien, Linda (2008). Mother Teresa’s vision of the Crucified and His Mother. Catholic Change.

Russell, Bill (1979). Second Wind. New York: Random House.

Russell, Peter (1979). The Brain Book. New York: Dutton.

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