Mental Rotation and Visual-Spatial Transformation

I’d like to share some concepts with you from a book that I couldn’t resist buying in Barnes & Noble last week, the top of its pages apparently yellowed from sitting on the shelf for two years. Published in 2019, Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought is authored by Barbara Tversky, professor of psychology at Teachers College of Columbia University, emerita professor of psychology at Stanford University, and president of the Association for Psychological Science.

In her lifetime, Barbara became used to people recognizing her last name as associated with her late husband, Amos Tversky. After all, professionals who put an entire field of study on the map (Behavioral Economics), and who figure prominently in Nobel Prize Awards (Amos died in 1996 and was recognized by his collaborator Daniel Kahneman on accepting the Nobel in 2001), garner significant attention. Michael Lewis, famed author of Moneyball, wrote a book five years ago (The Undoing Project) about their monumental collaboration.

The dedication of Barbara’s book reads: “To Amos, whose mind was always in motion.” I am going to quote liberally from the Prologue to her book. “Our actions in space change space, change ourselves, and change others … Writing a book makes you, or me, think of structure … There are two parts of the book. The premise is audacious: spatial thinking, rooted in perception of space and action in it, is the foundation for all thought. The foundation, not the entire edifice. Try describing the faces of friends, places you love, events that were meaningful. The memories and images may be vivid, but words fail to capture them. Think about rearranging the furniture in your living room or how to fold a sweater or how many windows were in your childhood home or where the X key is on the keyboard. You might feel your eyes moving or your body squirming. Words alone won’t do it.”

In her first chapter, Professor Tversky writes: “Babies start disconnected. They don’t link what they see with what they do and what they feel. And they don’t link the parts of their body with each other. We take the connections between what we see and what we feel for granted, but human babies don’t enter the world with those connections; the connections are learned, slowly over many months. Ultimately, what unites the senses foremost is action. This is, the output – action – informs and integrates sensation – through a feedback loop. Unifying the senses depends on acting: doing and seeing and feeling, sensing the feedback from the doing at the same time. It’s not just babies who calibrate perception through action. We adults do it too. Experiments in which people don prismatic glasses that distort the world by turning it upside down or sliding it sideways show this dramatically”.

The adaptations seen in experiments with prismatic glasses of sufficient power reveal that or brain and body rely on a range of systematic distortions that are purposeful in allowing us to construct the space which we explore. These distortions tend to be hierarchical and involves landmarks, perspective taking, alignment, mental rotation, and straightening, leading Tversky to conclude that we do not make maps of space as much as we access cognitive collages. Meaning, they are contextual, enabling us to make reasonable judgments from these collages of information. Professor Tversky presented an overview of some of these concepts in her seminar at Stanford last year.

Consider in particular Professor Tversky’s treatment of perspective taking, and how this relates to vision and vision therapy. Specifically we’re referring to egocentric vs. allocentric perspective. The perspective of an observer embedded in a space, and the frame of reference involving extensions of the axes of one’s body, are typically called egocentric. Allocentric is an egoless “other-centric” perspective, one outside the boy and typically from above. In certain situations, our brains is called upon to extract our egos from their place embedded in the world and arrange things relative to each other rather than relative to oursevles.

Mental rotation is an example of visual-spatial transformation involving interplay between egocentric and allocentric perspective in which words cannot do justice to images. Spatial abilities fall on a continuum from seeing, to doing, to perceiving, to acting. Although some people seem to be born with advanced skill in spatial-motor imagination, the skill of mental rotation can be acquired in the usual way, which is with practice. In many instances physical rotation can help to internalize mental rotation. We set the conditions for this exploration in vision therapy when we use parquetry or attribute blocks.

It is phenomenal when you think about it, and something that we take for granted, that a vision therapist working with a patient is skilled in perspective taking well enough to guide a patient effectively in executing the types of visual-spatial transformations necessary for these activities. In many instances this is not the case, yet the therapist to whom these skills do not come easily but who undertakes enough practice to become proficient is well-positioned to have empathy for the patient who struggles to develop these skills. She or he is well-suited to point out the cognitive hacks that facilitate an effective balance between egocentric and allocentric perspective. Dr. Harry Wachs was gifted in this regard as related to visual spatial thinking, and Linda Sanet, COVT (pictured above) imparts this as part of Weekend 3 of the Sanet Seminar Series ePub.

10 thoughts on “Mental Rotation and Visual-Spatial Transformation

  1. Len, thanks again for another book to add to my reading list. I would agree with the premise that spatial thinking is foundational to cognition, and Harry certainly used to make such an argument.

    As action and movement through space create and develop spatial thinking, it’s no wonder we find more and more children lacking spatial skills, when their entertainment and learning are so dependent on screens rather than real-world interaction. One positive side-effect I’ve observed is that after the last year and a half on zoom, children, adults, and their teachers are craving real interactions over screen-based ones.

  2. This leads me to something a mentor once said “If it doesn’t get into the muscles, it doesn’t get into the brain.” I think that was Dr. Gerry Getman, and I think he disagreed with Dr. Wachs on developing concepts of visual spatial thinking. In any regard, I always wondered how CP children’s intellect could develop as they were born with constriction of movement. And yet, many do learn. I would love comments on this.

  3. Excellent entry, Len. Riding the coat tails of Amanda’s comment wrt children & spatial development:
    (As most of us are well aware, virtuality already deprives many children of time spent in the 3-dimensional, natural world. But is there danger in 3D?)
    ( With loss of spatial semantic appreciation and understanding comes an incremental dissolving of the brain “specs” of body awareness. May not seem like such a big deal…)
    (Virtual Worlds provide a lens to examine relations of time & space. They can be used when considering cultural contexts of production, while highlighting conditions in which processes of sense-making are triggered. However, they can also be viewed as reconditioning the mind & body to synthetic, even displaced realities..)

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