Mental self-rotation is the cognitive ability to imagine yourself in different locations in space, and to imagine your body moving in space. We need it for everyday activities such as finding a place or reading a map. The ability involved is technically called egocentric spatial transformations (yes, that is the scientific expression) or mental self rotation, and the brain areas primarily involved are the parietal lobes.
Here’s an example.
— Figures above: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, as in box C, by imagining yourself at the red dot location.
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 above, Box A). How do you get the answer to your question?
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 Box B above. 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 with 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.
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, PhD is a scientist, educator, and contributing author to “The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age” (April 2013; 284 pages).
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