Experiments in Visual Thinking

Mental Rotation

Below are three figures constructed by psychologists Lynn Cooper and Roger Shepard. These figures test an individuals potential for visual thinking, specifically the idea that we can rotate objects in our minds.

The test is as follows. Start with Figure 1: First, record the time just before you open (click) on the Figure 1 icon, second, determine if the two figures are the same or different and record the final time, finally calculate the total time taken to determine your answer. Repeat the same procedure in the other two figures.

Figure 1.

Figure 2.

Figure 3.

Your results should show that the time elapsed was proportional to the angle through which the objects were rotated and the amount of hidden information that must be reconstructed by the viewer. For most people figure 3. takes the most time. This simple experiment demonstrates that some people have more potential for visual thinking than others. This would be indicated by shorter elapsed times. Past studies have demonstrated these visual - analytical abilities are functionally assigned to the left-brain and right-brain respectively. For instance it is no great surprise that left handed people (right-brain) typically preform this mental rotation test with shorter elapsed times. Creativity is not unique to either type. There is a positive trade-off for people who are not apt visual thinkers but more analytic: individuals with a preference towards analysis can benefit by supplementing their analytic abilities with computer aided visual tools.

This experiment supports the objective of this course, which is to discover how visual tools can be used to assist our analytic abilities to discover the relationships in our analytical, experimental, and computational investigations. Visual tools are not only used to just show others what we have already determined, but visual tools can also be used to discover and create. If these visual tools are organized in a systematic approach to our problem solving approach, then these tools can also be classified as a methodology (visual methodology).

This particular rotation test could be created on your computer by matching the two objects at two points (vertices) that shared a common edge of a cube and then rotating these objects about that edge until we found that the vertices of all cubes coincided in space (numerical method), we could also physically construct these objects and rotate them with our hands (experimental method), or we could calculate the necessary anlaytic transformations to reproduce this same rotation (analytical method), but in this experiment your solution was done by observation ( visual method).

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R.D. Kriz
Va. Tech
College of Engineering
Revised 02/11/95