Motor Affordances in Mental Rotation: When minds reflect the world and when they go beyond


A vivid imagination is one of the defining features of human mental life. A large body of research has shown that mental imagery is supported by some of the same cognitive systems that underlie perception and action (Decety, 1996; Kosslyn, Thompson, & Ganis, 2006). At the same time, our imaginations can go far beyond what is currently available in our physical environment; we can conjure up new worlds in art and literature, design new technologies, and conduct thought experiments that lead to major scientific discoveries. In this paper we investigate the extent to which the physical constraints and affordances of objects in the real world impinge on our ability to represent and manipulate those objects in our imagination. In particular we ask: are objects that are more difficult to physically manipulate also more difficult to mentally manipulate? Participants interacted with two wooden objects modeled after the figures from Shepard and Metzler’s (1971) classic mental rotation study. One object was easy to physically rotate while the other was difficult to rotate. They then completed a mirror-image mental rotation task consisting of images of the manipulated objects. Participants were slower to solve the mental rotation task for trials consisting of images of the hard-to-rotate object, but only when they used a motor strategy in the task.

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