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Can you use mental self rotation to read a map?

What is men­tal self rota­tion? It is the abil­i­ty to imag­ine your­self in dif­fer­ent loca­tions in space and imag­ine your body mov­ing in space. This is an abil­i­ty that is used in dif­fer­ent every­day activ­i­ties such as nav­i­gat­ing in an envi­ron­ment or read­ing a map.

  • Abil­i­ty involved: ego­cen­tric spa­tial trans­for­ma­tions (yes, that is the sci­en­tif­ic expres­sion) or men­tal self rota­tion.
  • Brain areas involved: most­ly pari­etal lobes.

Let’s take an exam­ple. Imag­ine that you plan to go to a new Wal­greens loca­tion. You won­der whether going North on Big Bend Avenue you would have to make a right or a left turn onto Forsyth Blvd to get to Wal­greens. You then look at the map that your spouse has laid out on the table. It turns out that the map is upside down so your per­spec­tive is not aligned with the one shown on the map (see Fig­ure 1 just below, Box A). How do you get the answer to your ques­tion?

mental rotation brain teaser

— Fig­ure 1. The map is upside down (A). The red dot rep­re­sents your car’s posi­tion. Your goal is to go to Wal­greens (W). You can either per­form an object rota­tion (B), that is imag­ine the map rotat­ing, or a self rota­tion ©, that is imag­ine your­self at the red dot loca­tion.

To align your per­spec­tive with the one showed on the map you could imag­ine the map rotat­ing until it is upright. This is shown at the top right cor­ner of Fig­ure 1 above (Box B). This is what psy­chol­o­gists call men­tal rota­tion of object. Anoth­er solu­tion is to imag­ine view­ing the map from the oth­er side of the table. This is shown at the bot­tom right cor­ner of Fig­ure 1 above (Box C). Once you have imag­ined your­self on the oth­er side of the table you can use your body coor­di­nates and deter­mine that you will have to take a left on Forsyth. In that case, the map is not mov­ing but you are mov­ing. This is what psy­chol­o­gists call men­tal self rota­tion.

Ready to imag­ine your­self mov­ing in space?

For each map below count how many left and right turns you have to make to go from the cir­cle to the tri­an­gle. Fol­low the arrows. Do not move your body or your hands, try to do every­thing men­tal­ly.

brain teasers

mind games mental rotation

mind teasers mental rotation


Map 1: 3 left runs and 3 right turns

Map 2: 3 left runs and 3 right turns

Map 3: 6 left runs and 4 right turns

Pascale Michelon— This arti­cle was writ­ten by Pas­cale Mich­e­lon, Ph. D., for Dr. Mich­e­lon, Copy­right 2008. Dr. Mich­e­lon has a Ph.D. in Cog­ni­tive Psy­chol­o­gy and has worked as a Research Sci­en­tist at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in Saint Louis, in the Psy­chol­o­gy Depart­ment. She con­duct­ed sev­er­al research projects to under­stand how the brain makes use of visu­al infor­ma­tion and mem­o­rizes facts.

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10 Responses

  1. Brian West says:

    What is men­tal self rota­tion? It is the abil­i­ty to imag­ine your­self in dif­fer­ent loca­tions in space and imag­ine your body mov­ing in space.

  2. ninja spy says:

    In the Third Dia­gram Isnt it 7 left???

  3. S Quinn says:

    I keep find­ing 7 lefts in dia­gram 3.

  4. Alvaro says:

    There are only 6 left turns in dia­gram 3, as the solu­tion states. You can print the map and do it (and let me know if I am wrong…)

  5. S Quinn says:

    Tried #3 one more time. Yup, I was wrong. Fun­ny how you can’t see some­thing then all of a sud­den it’s clear. There are 6 lefts in dia­gram 3.

  6. Glad to hear. But also fun­ny how the pre­vi­ous com­ment by “nin­ja spy” may have anchored/ biased your per­cep­tion towards the num­ber 7…

  7. C Button says:

    I have done this my entire life and thought that it was some­thing every­one did- does any­one out there ever ‘fly,’ so to speak above a map to gain loca­tions and direc­tions? Sounds weird but that is the best way to describe how I man­age direc­tions.

  8. Dave Odom says:

    As a US Marine I was an artillery for­ward observ­er. That meant read­ing maps, locat­ing tar­gets and adjust­ing the impact loca­tion where the shells fell. Lat­er, to pay for col­lege, I worked as a pilot fly­ing all over the coun­try. Both of these jobs required the turn­ing of maps around in the mind. It nev­er occurred to me that to do so was any­thing spe­cial.

  9. Thank you for those com­ments. Indeed it is a cog­ni­tive abil­i­ty to do men­tal self rota­tions. For peo­ple who have been exer­cis­ing that skill all their lives (and there­fore become bet­ter at it) it looks like sec­ond nature now. But it is not one every­one has: the most clear exam­ple I can think of: years ago, while trav­el­ing in Africa, I tried explain­ing some adults there what a map is and how to use it to move more effi­cient­ly around town. The con­cept sound­ed like sci­ence fic­tion to them for a while, until, with rehearsal and prac­tice, they came to under­stand how to use the map.

    This is not genet­ics-it is (for­mal and infor­mal) edu­ca­tion and prac­tice.

  10. Daniel Ellsworth says:

    try ori­en­teer­ing. There are big clubs in Wash­ing­ton and St. Louis also.

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