Thing #29: Roger Shepard’s classic studies of mental rotation (Cooper & Shepard, 1973; Shepard & Metzler, 1971) illustrate one of the most important methodologies in cognitive psychology, and anchor one of the most famous and contentious arguments in our field. The mental rotation paradigm is certainly chronometric (‘thing #11’ from our list), but is more basically psychophysics: manipulation of a physical stimulus (e.g., it’s degree of rotation from some canonical orientation) to determine the effect on psychological experience and behavior? The ubiquitous finding that RT

Response time (y axis) as a function of angle of rotation (x axis)

increases as a function of the degree of rotation, and that mental rotations appear to be analog and continuous—just like physical rotations—provide important insights into the nature of representation, particularly for theorists like Kosslyn who favor a depictive (versus Pylyshyn’s descriptive or propositional) view of imagery. I’m sure there will be future ‘things’ that also relate to this debate.

Mental rotation is also relevant to ‘thing #3’ (Baddeley’s model of WM), given the likelihood that imagery and visuospatial working memory are overlapping cognitive constructs.

The original Shepard studies are fantastic to read, or you can see a brief review of the behavioral work and then a meta-analysis of the neuroscientific studies of mental rotation here:

Zacks, J. M. (2008). Neuroimaging studies of mental rotation: a meta-analysis and review. Journal of cognitive neuroscience20(1), 1-19.

Shepard, R. N., & Metzler, J. (1971). Mental rotation of three-dimensional objects. Science171(3972), 701-703.

Cooper, L. A., & Shepard, R. N. (1973). Chronometric studies of the rotation of mental images. In Visual information processing (pp. 75-176).

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