Mental rotation tasks involve rotating mental representations of objects in your mind.
Some of the leading researchers studying aphantasia have used MR tasks to gain a better understanding of how the visual processing system may differ in the brain of aphantasics, with surprising conclusions.
Complete the following MR tasks and see for yourself, but keep in mind, MR 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 (BR) paradigm when identifying aphantasia.
Here are some simple MR tasks 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:
- Create a mental image of the object
- Rotate the object mentally clockwise or counterclockwise
- Make a comparison to another object
- Decide if the objects are the same or not
- Record decision and time to complete
Scientists Roger Shepard and Jacqueline Metzler came up with a novel 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 it.
Ready, set, go!
We'll share the correct answer at end of article. Keep reading.
Mental rotation is often thought of as a task that requires visualization, 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. Right?
Quite surprisingly, people with aphantasia actually perform better on MR tasks!
According to one study led by professor Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter, who coined the term ‘aphantasia,’ people with aphantasia were found to have more correct answers on MR tasks on average, though the time taken to answer each question was typically longer.
The image below details the results of this study. Zeman conducted MR tasks with ‘patient MX,’ who abruptly lost the ability to generate mental images after undergoing heart surgery and suffering a minor stroke. To Zeman’s surprise, MX was able to perform perfectly on mental rotation tasks despite their inability to visualize the objects in his mind’s eye.
Mean correct response time on mental rotation for MX and five matched controls.
How can this be?
People with aphantasia have found another way to complete MR tasks that doesn’t involve *at least not consciously* visualizing the objects in the mind.
Zeman’s findings have opened up a whole host of new questions for scientists; how exactly does the visual processing system differ in the brain of an aphantasic? What alternative strategies are they using to complete MR 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 strategy when completing MR tasks.
The aphantasic brain, however, is far from average.
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? 2, 3, 4 or 5?
This time, after completing the MR task, take note of how you went about completing it: What cognitive stages did you use to complete them, if any?
Take your time, set a timer, record your answer and insights.
Ready, set, go!
Answers at end of article. Keep reading. Almost there!
What could these results mean?
Zeman’s findings suggest 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 simply don’t have conscious access to them. The main evidence supporting this claim is the fact that there are aphantasics who have no conscious experience of mental imagery whatsoever (exhibit A: patient MX), and at least some of them are still capable of performing tasks that are assumed to require the manipulation of visual imagery – such as the case with mental rotation tasks.
Let’s try one more example. This time, let’s add another dimension …folds and colours! Record your answer, time to complete and any 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! Homestretch.
How does the visual processing system in the brain of an aphantasic actually work?
By participating in MR tasks and sharing your insights, you help scientists discover answers to these burning questions. 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 them.
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 similar results, this could be due to other factors. Some additional factors that may influence your MR 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 diagnoses of aphantasia, but rather a fun experiment to try that could point inquiry in a new direction, or bring us a step closer 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 already underway by some pretty incredible scientists, or inspire new researchers to explore these phenomena in greater depths.
How do you perform on mental rotation tasks?
To contribute to the conversation and ongoing investigation, join the discussion below. 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 (2D) = Both 2 and 3
MR Task 3 (3D) = Both 1 and 3