Mental Rotation Task

Technique for understanding how visual processing differs in the brain of an aphantasic.

Mental rotation task (MR) is a technique some leading scientists and researchers studying aphantasia have used to understand how the visual processing system differs in the brain of an aphantasic. The technique is often paired with other measures like vividness of visual imagery questionnaire (VVIQ) and binocular rivalry (BR) experiment.

Here are some simple MR tasks to try, and why they can be an indicator of aphantasia

A mental rotation task involves 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 within the human mind, and typically involves the following cognitive stages:

  1. Create mental image of the object
  2. Rotate the object mentally
  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 came up with an innovative way to measure MR 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 subject taking the test 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?

Let’s start with a 2D example.

Which of the three 2D objects is the same as the first object just rotated differently? 1, 2, or 3?

Take your time to decide on an answer. Make sure to record your answer and time to complete. 

Ready, set, go!

Will share  correct answer at end of article. Keep reading.

Mental rotation is often thought of as a task that requires you to visualize the objects and rotate them mentally, as evidenced by cognitive stages 1 and 2.  This assertion would therefore imply that people with aphantasia, or the inability to generate mental images, would be unable to perform such a task.

Quite surprisingly, however, it was discovered that people with aphantasia actually perform better on MR tasks!

Some aphantasics studied were found to have more correct answers on average, though the time taken to answer each question was typically longer.

Not convinced? See the image below of the results of a study conducted by Professor Zeman of the University of Exeter. Zeman conducted MR tasks with patient MX, who abruptly lost the ability to generate mental images after undergoing surgery. To Zeman’s surprise, MX was able to perform perfectly on mental rotation tasks despite his inability to visualize the objects in his mind’s eye.

Mean correct response time on mental rotation for MX and for five matched control participants.

How can this be?

Clearly, people with aphantasia have found another way to complete MR tasks that doesn’t involve *at least consciously* visualizing the objects in the mind. Because of Zeman’s findings, MR tasks have opened up a whole host of new questions for scientists to focus their research on to discover how exactly the visual processing system differs in the brain of an aphantasic, and why this leads to more accurate answers.

What circuits are activated in the brain of an aphantasic when performing mental rotation tasks? What alternative strategies are they using to complete them? What can we learn from these alternative approaches?

People without aphantasia 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 within their brains to complete the tasks. Cognitive stages 1 to 5  above does a good job at describing the average person’s strategy when completing MR tasks.

The aphantasic brain, however, is far from average.

By contrast, people with aphantasia rely on a different brain circuit to solve MR tasks and by consequence, use alternative strategies to complete them; but nobody is really sure what that looks like… yet.

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

Which of the four 3D objects is the same as the first one just rotated differently? 1, 2, 3, or 4?

This time, after completing the MR task, take note of how you went about completing it; What cognitive stages did you take to complete them?

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

Ready, set, go!

Will share correct answer at end of article. Keep reading. Almost there!

What Could the Results Mean

According to Zeman’s 2018 fMRI study it would appear there is an inverse relationship between the vividness of visual imagery and activity in the frontal cortex, where high activity in the frontal cortex equates to aphantasia, as strong visualization skills happen when there is low activity in the frontal cortex. Whether this high activity is causing aphantasia, or simply a consequence of it, is still unclear. Additionally, how this might relate to aphantasic skills in mental rotation tasks is also unclear.

What Zeman’s findings do suggest 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 main evidence supporting this claim the fact that there are aphantasics who have no conscious experience of mental imagery whatsoever (exhibit A: patient MX), and at least some of these subjects are still capable of performing tasks that are assumed to require the manipulation of mental imagery – such as the case with mental rotation tasks.

Let’s try one more example. This time, let’s add another dimension …folds! Record your answer, time to complete and insights.

Which of the five colourful 3D objects matches the first one just folded and rotated differently? 2, 3, 4, or 5

Ready, set, go!

Nearly there. Keep reading! Home stretch.

Is mental imagery unconscious in people with aphantasia?  Do we make too many assumptions when it comes to the role of mental imagery in performing certain tasks? How does the mind of an aphantasic actually work?

By participating in MR tasks and sharing your insights, you might help scientists discover answers to these burning questions sooner. Try completing the above tasks with your friends and compare results. You should find that you, the aphantasic person, have a higher total score but take longer to complete the task.

Is this true?

If you’d like to complete more MR tasks, a simple google search can lead you to more examples. Be wary, though. There are many other factors that influence MR skills. If you don’t get the results you were hoping for, don’t be disappointed. 

Some additional factors that may influence your results include but may not be limited to: age; sex; spatial skills as well as vividness of visual imagery. 

As with many of these questionnairesexperiments and tasks; this isn’t a conclusive diagnostic on aphantasia, but rather a fun experiment to try that could point us in a new direction, to solving some of these unanswered questions. 

Hopefully, the more we experiment and share our results and insights with each other, the more we can expand on the research efforts on aphantasia already underway by some pretty incredible scientists, or inspire new researchers to explore this phenomena in greater depths. 

How do you perform on mental rotation tasks? What alternative strategies do you use to complete them? What cognitive steps do you take?

To contribute to the conversation and ongoing investigation into the mind of an aphantasic, join the discussion. Share your answers to above MR tasks, time to complete, and any insights you gleaned into your strategy for completing them. 

Let’s explore how our minds really work, together!

MR Task 1 (2D) = 1
MR Task 2 (3D) = Both 1 and 3
MR Task 3 (Colour) = Both 2 and 3.
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Mental Rotation Task

Mental rotation task is a technique some leading scientists and researchers studying aphantasia have used to understand how the visual processing system differs in the brain of an aphantasic.

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