On the iconic format of perception:

relations between perception, cognition
and mental imagery

A project supported by an ISF grant no. 715/20. PI: Assaf Weksler  (2020-2022)

According to an influential hypothesis, perceptual representations have an iconic (picture-like) format and thoughts have a discursive (sentence-like) format. The iconic format has various theoretical characterizations (usually in contrast to discursive format). For example, iconic representations are said to be holistic, analogue. They obey the parts principle. They decomposes into syntactically and semantically homogeneous parts.


​The goal of the project is to explore the hypothesis that perception is iconic, by examining
the similarities and differences, as well as the interactions, between perceptual representations
and representations whose format is considered to be iconic (mental imagery) or discursive
(thought, working memory).


The project has three parts:

1. The influence of cognition on perception (in light of format differences)

In the transition from perception to thought it seems that some information is lost due to format differences (Openshaw & Weksler 2020; Quilty-Dunn 2019). What about the opposite direction, from cognition to perception? Burnston (2017) argues that the format difference implies that the notion of cognitive penetrability should be re-conceptualized. I want to ask a different question: is information lost in the transition from thought to perception? Since iconic format cannot support logical structure (Fodor 2007; Mandelbaum & Quilty-Dunn 2018), there is some reason to think that logical structure from thought is lost in the transition to perception. This part of the project explores this suggestion. Here is a recorded zoom presentation about this that I presented At ECAP10 (in collaboration with Dan Ryder and Petra Vetter). An earlier version of this talk was presented at the Centre for Philosophical Psychology (Antwerp).

2. The perspectival character of perception (in light of the iconic format of perception)

Lande (2019) proposes that the elliptical appearance of a tilted coin (the "perspectival ellipticality") is grounded in the iconic format of perception, which on his understanding is a 2D array. This part of the project aims to assess this idea from several directions. First, I will try to apply my neuroscientific case for transparency (Weksler, Jacobson & Bronfman 2019) to the case of format, arguing that it is not possible to attend to format properties. Consequently, it shouldn't be possible to attend to the elliptical appearance of a titled coin, if Lande's view were true, which seems problematic. Second, philosophers who hold that the tilted coin does not look elliptical at all (Briscoe 2008; Schwitzgebel 2011), must explain certain psychological effects, such as those found by Morales, Bax & Firestone (2020). I want to examine whether the iconic format of perception can do this explanatory work.

3. Mental imagery vs. perception (in light of their shared iconic format)

This part of the project is experimental. It is scheduled to run in Prof. Baruch Eitam's lab during 2020-2021 (the grant will fund scholarships for personnel in the lab, compensation for participants and equipment).
Quilty-Dunn (2019) argues that iconic format (of perception) implies that its capacity is not object-based. However, Keogh & Pearson (2017) have apparently shown that the capacity of mental imagery is object-based. These two theses are incompatible with an influential third thesis, namely that mental imagery is iconic. So something has gone wrong. I plan to conduct experiments based on Keogh & Pearson's approach, with an attempt to either undermine their conclusion (maybe there is a confounding factor like attention/task set) or undermine Quilty-Dunn's proposal (maybe iconic format is compatible with object-based capacity).

The grant could potentially fund another experiment, about a topic related to the project, which will be run at one of the psychology labs at Haifa U (e.g., this lab, or that). If you have an idea for such an experiment, please get in touch.


Project Members


Eitan is a 4th year psychology graduate student and the lab manager of the Motivation Cognition Lab. He  joined us (part time) on 2020. He works on the experimental aspects of the project


Ben is a PhD candidate at the Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology program at WUSTL. He will join us as a postdoctoral researcher on October 2021