Mental Rotation Tasks: Surprising Advantage of Aphantasia

You may not be able to create images in your mind, but can you complete these tasks?
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!


  • 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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