This study was an attempt to identify the epistemological roots of knowledge when students carry out hands-on experiments in physics. We found that, within the context of designing a solution to a stated problem, subjects constructed and ran thought experiments intertwined within the processes of conducting physical experiments. We show that the process of alternating between these two modes- empirically experimenting and experimenting in thought- leads towards a convergence on scientifically acceptable concepts. We call this process mutual projection. In the process of mutual projection, external representations were generated. Objects in the physical environment were represented in an imaginary world and these representations were associated with processes in the physical world. It is through this coupling that constituents of both the imaginary world and the physical world gain meaning. We further show that the external representations are rooted in sensory interaction and constitute a semi-symbolic pictorial communication system, a sort of primitive 'language', which is developed as the practical work continues. The constituents of this pictorial communication system are used in the thought experiments taking place in association with the empirical experimentation. The results of this study provide a model of physics learning during hands-on experimentation.