My visuospatial reasoning skills have proven essential to my learning of anatomy. As I perform a dissection, I’m constantly recalling, scrutinizing, and manipulating mental images.
For example, I’ll think something along the lines of:
I’m currently viewing a cadaver from the anterior side. I know that, on the posterior side, the circumflex scapular artery emerges from the triangular space, between the teres major and minor muscles and medial to the long head of the triceps brachii. Here, I see the subscapular artery, which divides into thoracodorsal and the circumflex scapular. I know that the proximal branch must be the circumflex scapular, since I see it diving deep between the teres muscles, into what, on the posterior side, will become the triangular space.
And so on.
I quickly found that I was not alone in citing the benefits of visuospatial reasoning to medicine (1).
So, I started to wonder: can visuospatial ability be quantified? Can it be improved?
In 1971, Shepard and Metzler (2) set out to quantify visuospatial ability.
Their paper, published in Science, established a standard protocol for measurement of visuospatial ability that lasts through this day.
In their mental rotation task, subjects decide whether or not two 2D representations of 3D objects actually correspond to the same 3D object. Try it yourself! For each image below, determine whether or not the two objects shown are identical. If you want to be extra competitive, time yourself and post your time in the comments. Meanwhile, I’ll post the answers in the comments.
In 1978, Vandenberg and Kuse (3) assigned the mental rotation task to men and women. They noted considerable sex differences.
Men performed significantly better on the test. The sex disparity in mental rotation, and, more generally, in visuospatial reasoning, remains one of the most marked and reproducible sex differences studied in psychology.
Just last year, researchers in The Netherlands (4) published a fascinating paper which not only corroborated Vandenburg and Kuse’s result, but further explained it–and complicated it.
They studied individuals with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS). These individuals are genetically male–they have sex chromosomes X and Y–but they lack the androgen receptor. Thus, androgens, including testosterone, have no effect on their bodies. The result is that they develop an entirely female phenotype, with female secondary sex charactaristics, female external genitalia, and so on. And, it turns out, their brains are phenotypically-female as well. Van Hemmen and Veltman (4) found that individuals with CAIS achieved female-like scores on the mental rotation task.
These findings indicate that the sex chromosomes act on the brain indirectly, via hormones, instead of directly. This suggests that mental rotation ability might be something we can control and modify. We know that the brain can be changed. Now we should figure out how we might go about changing it.
Cohen (5) sought out to find where exactly mental rotation is processed in the brain. Using fMRI technology, he found that Brodmann’s area 7 was particularly active during mental rotation.Brodman’s area 7, part of the posterior parietal lobe, is bordered by the occipital lobe, below, and the primary somatosensory cortex, above. The former processes sight, and the latter processes touch. So, Brodmann’s 7 might be thought of as the part of the brain that coordinates the act of reaching out and touching something. This fits my experience: when I solve mental rotation problems, I tend to visualize the process of actually, physically, rotating the objects. I rotate one object until it “clicks” with the other, or fails to. Given Brodmann 7’s role in visuo-motor coordination and object manipulation, it’s not surprising that Cohen saw it light up when subjects performed mental rotation.
Theoretically, we should be able to improve our ability to mentally rotate by training Brodmann’s area 7. And research shows that this is the case.
This is encouraging. Mental rotation is learnable. Also encouraging is the fact that we can improve our ability to mentally-rotate with activities beyond mental rotation: video games seem to help too (7). And, in fact, they narrow the gap between the sexes.
It appears from these results that, regardless of their mental rotation floor, men and women likely have the same ceiling.
Video games can improve ability at mental rotation. So can activities as diverse as athletics and music (8).
Of course, we would hardly take up music just to get better at mental rotation. The question becomes: does this relationship work in reverse? That is, can we improve at sports, music, navigation, and so on, by practicing at mental rotation?
We all know that practice at Activity A improves performance at Activity A. The important question is whether or not practice at Activity A also improves performance at Activities B, C and D. Brain games like lumosity claim to “Train your memory and attention”–enhancing performance, not just at lumosity, but in general. I’m skeptical.
But it seems like, if there were ever a simple task of which practice would produce widespread benefits, that task would be mental rotation. The sources cited above seem to think so. (1) and (7) claim that visuospatial reasoning is useful for medicine and navigation, driving, assembly or math, respectively. It would then follow that better visuospatial reasoning means better performance in these arenas.
So, should we start doing mental rotation problems every day? Well, maybe. But a better solution might exist. I’ve suggested that visuospatial activity enhances mental rotation, and that mental rotation enhances visuospatial activity. What’s most likely, though, is not that each is responsible for the other, but rather that each is simply reflective of a raw, visuospatial ability–a Brodmann’s 7 factor, if you will. The important part isn’t to practice mental rotation in particular; it’s to train Brodmann’s area 7, by any means–especially by means outside of mental rotation.
We can take an analogy from inside mental rotation. Upon further analysis, maybe not all participants in the mental rotation test actually utilize Brodmann 7. That’s because, according to (9), not all participants use the same strategy. Geiser, et al, distinguish between “rotators” and “nonrotators”. The former use visuospatial technique: “this, turned that way, matches that.” Nonrotators, on the other hand, use a linear, or analytic technique. “Two blocks, then three to the right, then three more upwards.”
Interestingly, in Geiser’s study, nonrotators tended to score worse. Moreover, the historically-established sex difference was confirmed in this study, and females were over-represented among nonrotators.
What’s the message here? If one wishes to improve at visuospatial tasks, he or she should strive to be a rotator. Brodmann’s 7 occupies quite a bit of real-estate, and that space shouldn’t go unused.
It seems that females often choose analytic over spatial reasoning by default. But just a few minutes of video games might turn them into rotators (7). On that note, perhaps males, ad initium, are just as likely to choose analytic reasoning. But, due to cultural influences, they are exposed more to video games and video-game-like stimuli than are their female counterparts. So, by the time they take the mental rotation test, they have drifted further towards becoming rotators.
The important part is that the drift towards rotatorship is possible. And we should all strive to make that transition, simply because rotation works.
You might not find the time to practice the mental rotation task (while being sure to rotate and not analyze). But you could consider driving with the help of a map instead of a list of directions. Walk from your bed to the kitchen in the dark. Exercise using body weight, not gym machines. Activities that utilize visuospatial reasoning might well yield improvement at all other activities that utilize visuospatial reasoning. I know that, before my next anatomy test, I’ll be studying from my atlas, not from my textbook.
- Luursema, Jan-Maarten et al. “Visuo-Spatial Ability in Colonoscopy Simulator Training.” Advances in Health Sciences Education 15.5 (2010): 685–694. PMC. Web. 4 Feb. 2015.
- Shepard, R., & Metzler, J. (1971). Mental Rotation Of Three-Dimensional Objects. Science,171(3972), 701-703.
- Vandenberg, S., & Kuse, A. (1978). Mental Rotations, A Group Test Of Three-Dimensional Spatial Visualization. Perceptual And Motor Skills, 599-604.
- Van Hemmen, J. (2014). Neural Activation During Mental Rotation in Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome: The Influence of Sex Hormones and Sex Chromosomes. Cerebral Cortex.
- Cohen, M. “Changes in Cortical Activities During Mental Rotation: A mapping study using functional magnetic resonance imaging” 1996 February 12, 2006
- Kail, Robert, and Young-Shin Park. “Impact of Practice on Speed of Mental Rotation.” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology (1990): 227-44. Print.
- University Of Toronto. “Playing Video Games Reduces Sex Differences In Spatial Skills.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 October 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071024145626.htm>.
- Pietsch, S., & Jansen, P. (2012). Different mental rotation performance in students of music, sport and education. Learning And Individual Differences,22(1), 159-163.
- Geiser, Christian, Wolfgang Lehmann, and Michael Eid. “Separating “Rotators” From “Nonrotators” in the Mental Rotations Test: A Multigroup Latent Class Analysis.”Multivariate Behavioral Research (2006): 261-93. Print.