An eidetic image is a type of vivid mental image, not necessarily derived from an actual external event or memory. It was identified in the early twentieth century as a distinct phenomenon by psychologists including E.R. Jaensch, Heinrich Klüver, Gordon Allport and Frederic Bartlett. Later, Akhter Ahsen located eidetic imagery in a structuralist context, and explored its therapeutic applications: psychotherapists sometimes encourage their clients to create and explore eidetic images as a way of coming to terms with past life events. Eidetic imagery has also been studied in relation to the creative arts.
In Klüver's words, "the Eidetic Image has been identified in psychological literature as a vision, as a source for new thought and feeling, as a material picture in the mind which can be scanned by the person as he would scan a real current event in his environment, and as a potent, highly significant stimulus which arises from within the mind and throws it into a series of self-revealing imagery effects" (Klüver, 1932; Richardson, 1969; Ahsen, 1977).
In a more general context, the eidetic can be defined as a normal subjective visual image experienced with noticeable vividness whether evoked by an actual external object or not. The eidetic image is not dependent on any prior experience, condition, state, or event. The eidetic image is “seen” within the mind or literally seen externally. In seeing an eidetic image, definite somatic events as well as a feeling of meaning are also present. American psychologist Gordon Willard Allport formulated a similar definition and emphasized the “healthful” structure of the eidetic by stating “definition should be understood to exclude both pathological hallucinations and dream images, and to admit those spontaneous images of phantasy which, though possessed of perceptual character, cannot be said to be literally revivals or restorations of any specific perception.” (Allport, 1924, p. 100)
In more recent uses of the term, vivid memory images have been described as eidetic images (Horowitz, 1970, p. 22), “an exceptionally vivid memory image that occurs immediately after the perception” (Hebb, 1972, p. 242), “the ability possessed by a minority of people to ‘see’ an image that is an exact copy of the original sensory experience” (Kagan & Havemann, 1972, p. 588), the “half-way house to hallucination” (Drever, 1964, p. 80). Other treatments include that of Leask, Haber, and Haber, who describe the eidetic as “a visual image, representing a previously scanned stimulus, persisting for up to several minutes, and phenomenally located in front of the eyes” (p. 25).
David Marks and Peter McKellar state, “EI can be induced by a number of different methods: 1) by the presentation of an external stimulus (e.g., a picture or a tune); 2) by a thought, suggestion, idea or internal image; or 3) by some combination of 1 and 2."
Various types of images correspond at many junctures, making it difficult for psychologists and philosophers to define the criteria for distinguishing between images. (See Analysis of Mind by Bertrand Russell, 1921, p. 145.) Nevertheless, such distinctions are made without confusion in everyday life: a motorist does not respond to a danger signal as if it is merely a dream experience, or a memory of a past event, or a fantasy image. The criteria spontaneously function with total clarity so the motorist is not confused and responds appropriately. Confusion, rather, occurs during emotional disturbance as in hysteria and schizophrenia, when those affected are unable to distinguish critical parts of their own experience from the other levels of imagery.
As to determining the key to the criteria for distinctions, some theorists emphasize the study of the after-image while others the memory image and still others the eidetic image. The eidetic image is favored as the key because it shares some attributes with the other two. To demonstrate this positioning of the EI sharing attributes, consider the following example. If one watches a color television picture and then turns the eye quickly away from the screen, a brief positive after-image (AI) of the original picture lingers. This AI travels with the eye and is not subject to voluntary control or recall. The eidetic (EI) of the original TV picture, once obtained, can be seen for a few minutes or even as long as several hours so it, too, has the lingering sensory quality of the positive after-image. While the memory image (MI) of the original TV picture being a conscious attempt of recall, it does not have the sensory quality of AI or EI. However, the MI can be seen for a long period of time like EI. Therefore, sharing qualities of the other two while also being independent of them, the EI is placed in intermediate position between AI and MI.
Allport also argued that neither the after-image nor the memory image is favored as the possible middle point in the perception model when he said, “Some have said that the key to the solution is to be found in a better understanding of the nature and is of the Al. But after-images belong to sensation, and have nothing whatever to do with memory. Eidetic imagery would seem to have a more legitimate claim to be the connecting link. Certainly on the descriptive side the justified.”
The eidetic being central gives it special status as it relates to Emmert's law, which states that the size of the image varies proportionately with the distance of the projection ground from the eye. The after-image follows the law most faithfully, the memory image does not follow it at all, and the eidetic image falls in between; i.e., it follows and does not follow Emmert's law. In general, however, the eidetic resembles the after-image more than the memory image in respect to this characteristic.
In regards to the memory image, both Bartlett (1921, 1932) and Allport (1924, 1928) speak of how it is a structured representation where immaterial details obscure and important features are made prominent for speedy and decisive reaction. “This particular function of the MI, according to Bartlett, is to manifest itself when the reaction is hesitating, and to lead to a response which is decisive”. The MI and EI are differentiated by the MI’s urgency and decisiveness that often causes a structural error in its hasty response while the eidetic appears on its own timeframe without urgency or error. When the original eidetic appears and is given slow attention, Allport noted how an individual “upon the evidence of his EI corrects spontaneously misstatements which he made in his previous account ‘from memory.’”
At times the eidetic has been likened to a short-term memory image also known as an icon (Sperling, 1960, 1967; Norman, 1968 ), but this notion is rejected by Leask et al. (1969) and Gray and Gummerman (1975). Only in vividness and liveliness are these two types of images similar. When time is considered, eidetics, especially structural ones, are not only recalled in the short-term but can also be recalled after weeks, months, and even years.
Due to the flexibility of the eidetic, it has often been confused with imagination in that while experiencing an eidetic, an individual can maneuver the image to perform meaningful actions. But as Allport pointed out, “The range of flexibility is very great indeed, but it does not extend to include the ridiculous or unnatural.” Most people can use their imagination to make any ridiculous change in their imagination image, but the eidetic image alters only in a natural direction and, therefore, the eidetic is not unlimited in its alterability like an image of imagination. (See also comments on Ahsen’s concept of the eidetic in Wolpe, 1969, p. 233; Lazarus, 1971, p. 226; Singer, 1974, p. 134 ) however, the above theory of eidetic excluding unnatural or ridiculous might be contradicted by the concept of memory palace.
The distinction between the eidetic image and the imagination also applies to the term “active imagination”. The eidetic responds to natural precision in consciousness but does not react well to “active imaginal handling which, most often, leads to distortion through memory channels.” The original Jungian term “active imagination” (Jung, 1954), which then lead to the derivations of Assagioli’s “psychosynthesis” and Virel’s “directed daydream,” differs from the eidetic process in that the eidetic arises from alert consciousness rather than when consciousness is dimmed or is controlled.
Though spontaneous and repeatable like an eidetic, when the daydream does not progress independently on its own, it is not an eidetic. However, daydreams have easily been confused with eidetic images because, as Allport recognized, spontaneous images of fantasy can be eidetic images if they are of a perceptual character and have a healthy orientation. This healthy orientation is what distinguishes an eidetic from a daydream. Only daydreams being of the healthful and releasing type are eidetic, while negative daydreams go against the nature of the eidetic in not being healthy and restorative.
In clinical literature, the dream is considered as being of distorted and censored material through which surface images deviously hide latent truth. The eidetic also has latent material below its surface image but its latency continuously progresses toward revealing its hidden truth. Oswald Kroh (1922), Allport (1924), Wilder Penfield (1952), Lawrence Kubie (1952), and Akhter Ahsen (1977), all agree that though a person may change or may unknowingly introduce new details, “he is definitely unable to introduce into his image features which are at variance with the normal constitution of things.”
Since eidetics involve critical awareness (Allport (1924); Penfield (1952)) they are not hypnotically induced images or hypnagogic and hypnopompic images that occur in the twilight state between waking and sleeping. “Eidetic images occur during alert consciousness and are amenable to some degree of volitional control.”
Due to the sensory deprivation and isolation research, there is a better understanding that during sensory deprivation and isolation the mind sometimes generates ideas or images that, under certain pathological conditions, appear as full-fledged hallucinations. (Campbell, 1930; Perot & Penfield, 1960; Goldberger & Holt, 1961; Fisher, 1962; Klüver, 1962; Solomon & Mendelson, 1962; Horowitz, 1964; Zuckerman & Cohen, 1964; Maclndoe & Singer, 1966) The spontaneity of the appearance of the hallucination is similar to the spontaneity of the appearance of an eidetic image, but again, as also mentioned as to the distinction between a daydream and an eidetic, the eidetic progresses toward the healthy restitution of natural order while the hallucination does not.
As Kubie noted, free association largely tends to be rapid, verbal, and imageless material that often deviates into penchants of memory foregoing any slow-moving nuclear progression. (Kubie, 1952; Paivio, 1971). The eidetic differs from free association because the eidetic is an image that appears in a stable and repeatable fashion that, with slow attention, progresses forward gaining nuclear detail.
Thought enjoys its content in sequential order so it can narrow down its perspective. The eidetic enjoys being spatial and expansive in providing more sequential material. With thought, the truth may or may not be captured between the content and its sequential organization. With the eidetic, it sequentially and spatially progresses to reveal more substance, so “it is not discursive sequential thought but instead creates thought as a consequence.” (Ahsen, 1977; Arnheim, 1969; Paivio, 1971).
In 1907, V. Urbantschitsch in Germany found a repeatable form of imagery called Anschauungsbilder (the earlier German term for eidetic). Following this, E. R. Jaensch took up the research, and between the First and Second World Wars, work on eidetics emanated from the Marburg Institute of Psychology, popularly known as the Marburg school. Jaensch concluded that the same laws which apply to normal perception also apply to eidetic phenomena, except that the two were “quantitatively different”. In 1928, Heinrich Klüver concluded that “There is … no doubt about the value of the attempt to investigate problems of ‘classical’ psychology by systematically applying laboratory methods. … The eidetic studies have brought out that it is possible to utilize objective methods for the determination of the subjective experiences of the individual.” By the 1930s, however, his work was largely superseded by two differing trends in psychology: psychoanalysis and behaviorism.
According to Ahsen’s research on imagery, which took place after the Second World War over a fifteen-year period prior to the publication of his first book in 1965, the type of image that repeatedly emerged as capable of resolving significant family or social issues had the same qualities as the eidetic described by the Marburg school. In 1977, after having tested and applied the concepts and techniques of eidetics in the experimental as well as clinical setting, Ahsen distinguished between structural eidetics (eidetic images based on the individual’s personal history and the changes he could cause in them) and typographic eidetics (an exact reproduction of the presented picture under laboratory conditions).
Following this, Ahsen introduced the term new structuralism to distinguish between Titchenerian and Saussurean structuralism and other neo-structural theories and also examined other post-structuralist developments in this context. The notion emphasized the necessity of dealing with the introspectively available data, since images fall in this special region of inquiry but represent an activated data-source. New Structuralism was distinguished from Husserl’s phenomenology, being particularly concerned with dramatic possibilities in the image which, in spite of existing entirely in the mind, operates as a real thing in the real world. Ahsen grounds his eidetic theory in both Eastern and Western traditions of science and philosophy. In addition, it draws on the most recent neuropsychological evidence involving two-process theory and holographic images in the work of Karl Pribram regarding the brain and the discovery of fractals in computer science.
Beyond therapeutics, interest in eidetic imagery has developed within sociology, literary criticism and the creative arts. The scientist Ivan Pavlov, from whose work behaviorism developed, wrote in his book Conditioned Reflexes and Psychiatry that there are “two categories of people — artists and thinkers. Between them, there is a marked difference. The artists … comprehend reality as a whole, as continuity, a complete living reality, without divisions, without any separations. The other group, the thinkers, pull it apart, kill it. … This difference is especially prominent in the so-called eidetic imagery of children. … Such a whole creation of reality cannot be completely attained by a thinker.”