Ten Types of Mental Imagery

Discover the Hidden, the Ten Types of Imagery You Can Use to Improve Performance



The psychologists tell us that images are constantly created even with the eyes open. However, these are not perceived as real in that the source is not our eyes. A special type of imagery important to leadership vision is Imagination.

Having imagination means first see something that is yet to exist. But it could exist if the right actions were taken. An example, a person might imagine what would happen prior to meeting with their boss. This is an important aspect of a leadership vision.

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

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

 “Too much verbalization can cause frustration and anxiety. A single correct image is worth more than tons of verbiage, which overloads and restricts the performer’s mind.” — (Garfield, 1984 page 80).

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

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

Characteristics of Imagery

Mental imagery can be defined according to a different characteristics Cratty (1989).

Numbers of Sensory Modes

Definition: Whether the images has other senses embedded in it. For example an image often has other sensory modes embedded in it. There might be sounds and feelings. An image can bring up emotions such as fear or happiness.


Definition: Whether the image can be manipulated by zooming, enlarging, rotating, shrinking etc. In a daydream, everything is controllable. However, most people find dreams to have the exact opposite characteristic.


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

Ten Types of Imagery

In contrast to physical objects, mental images have great flexibility and mutability. There are 7 kinds of mental imagery.

Types of Imagery in The Sleep-Waking Cycle


Images experienced just before sleep. These are images usually extremely vivid.

Dreams Imagery

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


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


These are mental images occurring just as you are waking up. These images are typically extremely vivid.

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 images we experience. We see a picture in with the eyes and we reproduce it.


Symbols are practicularily interesting images because they they have two types of meaning. The first is the obvious one. But it also packs hidden meaning, a meaning few people understand or even realize exists. Some refer to this as having a literal and a figurative meaning.

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


For example, let’s say that in a dream, there is a symbol of a two-story house with a basement. It could represent your real house, the one you actually live in. But it could also represent your mind: the group floor is the Ego, while the basement is represents the unconscious. But then, what might the second story represent? A part of the mind like Superego? Something else? 

Religious and 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 Christians Saints such as Mother Teresa have experienced extraordinary images—images that have a strong psychological and emotional impact. It’s not only famous people, but a number of ordinary people have similar experiences. In many cases, these images include symbols that have hidden meaning attached to them. Here is an example on one such vision.

In 1947 Mother Teresa was shown a vision in three parts. In the first scene she saw the painful plight of the poor and the yet greater inner poverty that was hidden beneath their material poverty…they were reaching out to her.

In the second scene, Mother Teresa saw the same crowd of the poor…Our Lady 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 with darkness. There in the midst of an anguished 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)


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 the dream is that leaders bring about their vision in the real world.


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

a. The Future. In fact, the English language has many words meaning about the same thing as vision. These include:

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

b. Taking Action. Leaders are driven by internal forces. Those with a leadership vision possess a tremendous amount of energy—something that keeps driving them forward day after day, month after month, year after year.

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

It is the path,

For others a destination,

For some it involves looking into the past and future,

While for others still, it consists of a strategy.

Viktor Frankl in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” once described such a vision. In Frankl’s case, it came to him when he was wallowing in the misery of daily existence in a concentration camp during World War II. When he was wallowing in the misery 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.

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) was a believer that certain types of imagery from the unconscious was not just random, that there were patterns and these patterns are reflected in the archetypes. There are a number of more than twelve, but these archetypes are a good place to start

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

Guided Imagery

Imagery-Alice in Wonderland

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

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

Goal and Process Imagery

Image by: SD Dirk: High Jump Triton Invitational 2011


Mental imagery that combines a picture of the final goal—perhaps winning a golf tournament— with one of the process 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 sort of fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality.  (Jack Nicklauss, 1974)

Fran Tarenton, a NFL quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings for many years used to mentally practice 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 tot know who is chasing him by the sound of the footsteps and which way to turn to evade him, for ever man has his weakness. He must see those linebackers eyeing him as they backtrack into pass coverage, know their relative speeds and effectiveness, 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 at m. 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)


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


Cratty, Brynat (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 Greates 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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