The Mind’s Eye is a wonderful concept that enables one to relate a visual experience occurring solely within one’s own head.  It’s a constant inkling in imagery that belongs to our private internal world.  We have limited control of this strange faculty, managing sometimes to coax an image into mind, but not exactly being able to insist upon it’s exactness or clarity.
If the eyes observe what’s happening around us in the present, the Mind’s Eye visualizes everything that is not in the present.  In that private viewing space we see versions of what was, what might be and what could be.  If the eyes see fact, the mind’s eye sees possibility.  And since possibility has no guarantee, the mind’s eye never holds on to its images for very long.  Those images cannot stay any longer than the moment of supposition or else they would be in the realm of fact.  As real as our reactions might be to this stream of invisible imagery, it has no reproducible evidence.  The mind’s eye is merely an illusion for ourselves, existing only as much as we’ve interpreted it.  Or is it?
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging has vastly changed our ability to observe and decode the brain. fMRI machines can scan a brain and observe the changes of oxygenation in the blood to map neural activity. Broadly speaking, fMRI’s allow scientist to have a visual record of thought.
Recently, neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley released some fascinating results of their research using fMRI to peer into mental imagery. In the UCal experiments, researchers observed brain activity in the visual cortex with fMRI while subjects watched cinema footage.  As the brain responded to the shapes, edges, textures, colors and movement in the movies the neural activity was recorded and mapped.  Acting like linguists, the scientists translated what neural action corresponded with various visual information.  In essence they created a visual vocabulary for the brain activity so that when the subject was shown further movies in the fMRI, the scientists were able to reconstruct the footage as it was filtered through the brain.  In other words, they were able to see what someone saw.
The videos that document this on youtube are mesmerizing.  Two screens are shown side by side—one with the movies shown to the subject and the reconstructed visualization on the other.  An elephant trots along on one screen and on the other a shimmering collage of filmic fodder assembles to show a reciprocal elephant form.  Steve Martin stumbles on screen one and a Steve Martin-shaped blob stumbles on screen two.
What’s also interesting is that the visual cortex has no concern for what the subject matter is, only how it looks, so the reconstruction has only a formal interpretation without recognition.  It’s like hearing a foreigner sing an American song without understanding what the lyrics mean.  You actually can hear better what your language sounds like without meaning attached.  In such a way these reconstructed visualizations show how your brain sees the world before interpretation.
This experiment didn’t really record the Mind’s Eye, however.  It reconstructed the brains view of visual information, but phantasms of our mind’s associations.  Still it points science in the direction for such breakthroughs to occur.  From experiments like this we may soon have a neural Rosetta Stone that provides translation to the brain’s machinations.  That next step, when science is able to reconstruct the images that germinate entirely within ones’ brain, will blow my socks completely off.  If the brain activity corresponding to sensations of the Mind’s Eye are able to be recorded with fMRI, it is only a matter of time before it is decoded.
What strange visions will be brought into the open?   How will it feel to have that private world exposed?  How will the Mind’s Eye differ from one human to another?  Will our Mind’s Eye seize up at the sight of itself and become guarded, or feel liberated to wonder in greater depth and precision?  Would those images alone be very interesting without their associated feelings?
For visual thinkers such as myself, technology that could reproduce visualizations would be a great advancement for communication.  And finally the fleeting scenery of the Mind’s Eye could be recorded with permanence and observed closely.  Of course, art has traditionally been the means of expressing vision that can’t otherwise be put into words.  Art is inexact conveying these notions, but that inexactness has very appealing qualities.  Art gives a glimpse of that inner vision.  I wonder if having perfect access to the Mind’s eye through technological advance would improve the quality of art or undermine it with too much clarity.  A direct pipeline into the imagination would likely be a double-edged sword, but one, no doubt, our species would gladly wield.
Alex Cohen is a Bucks County painter.  To view more essays and paintings