Mental Rotation Tasks: Surprising Advantage of Aphantasia

You may not be able to create images in your mind, but can you complete these tasks?
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mental rotation
Photo by Esther Jiao on Unsplash

Mental rotation tasks involve rotating mental representations of objects in your mind.

Practically, mental rotation is involved in spatial reasoning and problem-solving. It is a skill we all use when we are trying to interpret which direction a map indicates we should turn when we try to determine if an additional piece of luggage will fit into a fixed space in a car, or when we try to imagine how the living room would look with the furniture rearranged. 

Some leading researchers studying aphantasia have used mental rotation tasks to better understand how the visual processing system may differ in the brain of aphantasics, with surprising conclusions.

Complete the following tasks and see for yourself, but remember that mental rotation tasks are not an identifier of aphantasia. These tasks are often paired with other measures like the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) and the Binocular Rivalry paradigm when identifying aphantasia.

Simple Mental Rotation Task to Try and Why One Aphantasics’ Results Baffled Researchers

Mental rotation tasks involve recognizing what an object may look like when viewed from other angles or when oriented differently in space. It is the ability to rotate mental representations of 2D or 3D objects and typically involves the following cognitive stages:

  1. Create a mental image of the object
  2. Rotate the object mentally clockwise or counterclockwise
  3. Make a comparison to another object
  4. Decide if the objects are the same or not
  5. Record decision and time to complete

Scientists Roger Shepard and Jacqueline Metzler devised a novel way to measure mental rotation task ability in 1971. It has been remade several times since then, but the newer versions are still based on the same idea; a 2D or 3D object is presented along with a group of similar objects. The test subject is asked to identify which object is the same as the original, just rotated differently in space.

Why not give it a try for yourself?

We’ll start with a 2D object.

1. Which of the three 2D objects is the same as the first object, just rotated differently?

Take your time to decide on an answer. Make sure to record your response and the time it took you to complete it.

Mental Rotation Task 1
The answers are at the bottom of the article. Keep reading!

Mental rotation, like in the example above, is often thought of as a task that requires visualization.

As evidenced by cognitive stages 1 and 2 listed above. This assertion would, therefore, imply that people with aphantasia, or the inability to visualize, would be unable to perform such a task. Right? Wrong!

Quite surprisingly, people with aphantasia actually perform better on mental rotation tasks!

According to one study led by professor Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter, who coined the term aphantasia, people with aphantasia have more correct answers on mental rotation tasks on average. However, the time taken to answer each question was typically longer.

The study reports the case of a patient, MX, who lost the ability to generate visual images but performed normally on visual perception and memory tests. fMRI scans revealed that MX’s brain had reduced activity in posterior regions and increased activity in frontal regions compared to controls during attempted imagery.

To Zeman’s surprise, MX could perform perfectly on mental rotation tasks despite his inability to visualize the objects in his mind’s eye.

Patient MX Mental Rotation Results
Mean correct response time on mental rotation for Patient MX and five matched controls.

How Do People Who Can’t Visualize Complete Mental Rotation Tasks?

Evidently, people with aphantasia have found another way to complete mental rotation tasks that don’t involve *at least not consciously* visualizing the objects in the mind.

Zeman’s findings prove MX adopted a different cognitive strategy. This discovery has opened up a whole host of new questions for researchers:

How exactly does the visual processing system differ in the brain of an aphantasic? What alternative strategies are they using to complete mental rotation tasks? What can we learn from these alternative ways of problem-solving?

Non-aphants might visualize the object and rotate it inside their mind to see if they can make it match one of the other objects. This means they rely primarily on the visual circuitry in their brain to complete such tasks. Cognitive stages 1 to 5 above do a good job of describing the average person’s mental model when completing these tasks.

The aphantasic brain, however, is far from average.

Let’s try another example with a 3D object.

2. Which of the four 3D objects is the same as the first one, just rotated differently?

This time, after completing the mental rotation task, record how you completed it: What cognitive stages listed above did you use to complete the task if any? Did you use any alternative strategies?

Take your time, set a timer, and record your answer and insights.

Mental Rotation Task 2
Answers are at the bottom. Keep reading. Almost there!

What Could These Differences in Cognitive Strategies Mean?

The findings of this study suggest that the capacity for visual imagery and the ability to perform well on mental rotation tasks can be dissociated from the subjective experience of visual imagery. This challenges the traditional assumption that these abilities are tightly linked and raises questions about the nature of mental imagery.

One theory is that mental imagery may be unconscious in the brain of an aphantasic. That is, people with aphantasia may be able to form visual images but don’t have conscious access to them.

The primary evidence supporting this claim is the fact that there are people with aphantasia who have no conscious experience of mental imagery whatsoever (exhibit A: patient MX), and at least some of them are capable of performing tasks that are assumed to require the manipulation of visual imagery – such as the case with mental rotation tasks.

It also provides evidence that the brain may use different cognitive strategies when attempting to generate mental images, which could have implications for understanding how the brain processes information and how we can improve cognitive abilities.

Let’s try one more example.

3. Which of the five colourful 3D objects matches the first one, just folded and rotated differently?

This time, another dimension …folds! Record your answer, time to complete and any insights on the cognitive strategy you used to complete the task.

Mental rotation task 3
Answers at the bottom

Try completing the above tasks with your friends and compare results. You may find that you, the aphantasic person, have a higher total score but take longer to complete them.

If you’d like to complete more mental rotation tasks, a simple google search can lead you to more examples. Be mindful, though. Many other factors can influence your results. If you don’t get similar results, this could be due to other factors. Some additional factors that may affect your mental rotation results include but may not be limited to: age; sex; spatial skills, and more.

As with many of these questionnaires, experiments and tasks, this isn’t a conclusive diagnosis of whether you have aphantasia or not, but rather a fun experiment to try that could help you better understand your cognitive abilities.

How Do You Perform on Mental Rotation Tasks?

Leave a comment in the comment section below. Share your answers, completion time, and insights into your cognitive strategy.

Let’s explore how our minds really work together!

Answers:

  • MR Task 1 (2D) = 1
  • MR Task 2 (3D) = 1 and 4
  • MR Task 3 (3D with folds) = 1 and 2
Zeman, A. Z. J., Della Sala, S., Torrens, L. A., Gountouna, V.-E., McGonigle, D. J., & Logie, R. H. (2010). Loss of imagery phenomenology with intact visuo-spatial task performance: a case of ‘blind imagination’. Neuropsychologia, 48(1), 145–155. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.08.024
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Total Comments (8)

I suspect I have aphantasia, and I have the same experience as the previous commenter. I can figure out the 2D puzzles somewhat easily by describing them (i.e., for #3, I can see that the red triangle is connected to an orange square, which leads me to answer 2, same for the purple triangle and blue square).

I can’t speak for everyone but my brain is certainly not secretly conjuring up images and then popping out answers for me—I am consciously arriving at the answer in a different way.

For the record, the 3D one took me quite an while—all the colors are in the same order on all the answers. I found the answers using directions: i.e., the upper purple cube is pointing south, with the lower arm branching away from it to the west. In 2 and 3, I can see that it branches to the east.

“The primary evidence supporting this claim is the fact that there are people with aphantasia who have no conscious experience of mental imagery whatsoever (exhibit A: patient MX), and at least some of them are capable of performing tasks that are assumed to require the manipulation of visual imagery – such as the case with mental rotation tasks.” Aphantasic here. I find this “evidence” really falls short and implies that “obviously” those who believe that they have no visual imagery actually do have it, but are somehow incapable of realizing it. This reminds me of how, when I first discovered that I was aphantasic, several people tried to explain to me that I just wasn’t properly understanding what was meant by visual imagery. Pfft. Anyway, I can figure out the rotated images by simply describing them to myself. For example: The small orange circle is across from the large purple circle, and the large purple circle is to the right of the solid turquoise circle (because I view it as the circles “facing” me). Of course, the more complex the image, the more description I need, and the longer it will take me to figure out the rotation, which is consistent with the study results.

I have aphantasia. Enjoyed the exercise and was able to discern the correct answers. I am also a highly sensitive person and recently read that HSP is not found in people with aphantasia. I find this finding puzzling.

I have aphantasia (born) but I’m rather good with mental rotations and other things.

The idea of being able to unconsciously see images is an interesting one.

I feel however that I’m using other tricks in order to do things.

For example, in no. 2 you can just count 3 from the purple, go down a right angle, make a right angle to the right, then another right angle down 1 in line. You can just trace this patterns for each shape to see if it matches.

In no 3. you can just go from either triangle then down and make sure the colour matches, then left and make sure the colour matches.

What’s interesting is spatial awareness. I can look at the room I’m in. I see a wardrobe and a door and a bedside table. I close my eyes and it’s gone completely. But I remember aspects of the objects. The shape and size of the objects, the distance between them. I can draw like a wireframe of all the objects and superimpose the objects onto it, I cannot see the wireframe or the objects but I’m aware of what such a picture would look like given their rough relative sizes and distances apart. I’m aware of some of the properties of the objects such as some colour, features, etc but only from what I remember.

This would actually be an interesting test to take. To look at a simple room then try to draw it. I reckon the relative sizes and shapes of the objects would be rather accurate, some details would be rather accurate but then other details would be lost completely in a way that wouldn’t happen with someone who could hold the image in their head better.

 

Shouldn’t the last task (“MR Task 3 (3D)”) also include number 5 as an answer?
-If, starting from the unfolded state as in picture number 1, you were to fold the purple lid towards the viewer, perpendicular onto the blue square, wrapped the green and orange around that, and folded the red lid on the bottom, you’d have a purple triangle on top, with the blue square as a successor of the green square when traversing the squares clockwise when viewed from upon the purple square

Anyway, very interesting post. What a strange, but very cool website!

I definitely fall into the hyperphantasia category but my eyes have almost zero depth perception. Thus spatial relations is a nightmare for me and these 2D and 3D exercises were always my worst enemies. The only strategy I have is to try to use pictures in my head to move the objects but I can’t do it quickly. I hated timed tests with any spatial relations testing.

I agree that hyperphantasia is a bit of a curse. I saw a movie as a child about a rampaging grizzly bear (I still remember it was called Night of the Grizzly and I don’t recommend it!) I vividly remember the movie now at age 63. I have learned to avoid horror movies and even scary cartoons. 

So…. I wonder if hyperphantasia contributes to phobias? I bet it does! 

Thanks, interesting to have a name for my life experiences.  I think you might be underestimating the number of people with it.  I sat in several hundred IEP’s for children (special education meetings) and recognized many whose struggles in school -particularly with spelling and memorizing sight words – were similar to my own struggles.  

It affects my ability to draw a mental picture from a written description of eg. a room when reading a book, and my ability to recognize individuals in movies if say two of the characters are even remotely similar in looks.

Great test, and I first thought, ‘This is a trick.  There are two that seem to fit…’ — and moved to the final one and suspected the same.  So I went back and rechecked and came to the same conclusions.   

Thanks for giving us a little mental challenge!