Mirrored or identical--is the role of visual perception underestimated in the mental rotation process of 3D-objects?: a combined fMRI-eye tracking-study

Neuropsychologia. 2012 Jul;50(8):1844-51. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2012.04.010. Epub 2012 May 1.


The mental-rotation task is a well known research paradigm to examine cognitive processes of mental imaging and mental manipulation (Shepard & Metzler, 1971). So far, research has been focused on stimulus orientation which indicates the necessary amount of mental rotation. But little attention has been paid to stimulus parity, specifically if and how identical and mirror-reversed stimuli are processed differently. We wanted to fill this gap by combining performance, eye-tracking, and neurofunctional measures using pairwise presented three-dimensional Shepard-Metzler stimuli in a self-paced event-related fMRI design. Based on our results we tried to reason at which stage of the mental-rotation process the treatment of mirrored and identical stimuli begins to diverge. As a common finding, response times for tasks with mirrored stimuli were longer compared to tasks with identical stimuli reflecting their higher cognitive demand. Moreover, we observed smaller saccade amplitudes for mirrored than for identical stimuli suggesting a smaller functional field of view during stimulus perception. The eye-movement results were complemented by our neurofunctional findings. Here, the processing of mirrored stimuli led to less activation in parts of the early visual cortex that respond to the visual periphery than the processing of identical figures. This activation difference remained after eye-movement-associated activations had been excluded. We explain our findings by stimulus-parity-induced differences in saliency maps built up to enhance perception. Thus, the treatment of mirrored and identical stimuli begins to diverge very early in the mental-rotation process and is associated with differences in visual processing.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping
  • Eye Movement Measurements
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Reaction Time
  • Rotation*
  • Saccades / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*