Neural Correlates of Object vs. Spatial Visualization Abilities

Neuroscience research demonstrates that the visual areas of the brain are divided into two distinct pathways. The dorsal, or spatial, and ventral, or object pathways. The object pathway  runs from occipital lobe to inferior temporal lobe, processing visual appearances of objects in terms of color, detail, shape, and size. The spatial pathway runs from occipital lobe to posterior parietal lobe, processing spatial attributes such as location, movement, spatial transformations  and spatial relations.


We are using fRMI to explore the neural mechanisms underlying individual differences in object vs. spatial visualization ability
Visualization Ability
. Our results (Motes, Malach, & Kozhevnikov , 2008) suggest that visual-spatial ability is related to distinct patterns of neural activity during the processing of visual-spatial information. When given an object imagery task, both spatial and object visualizers showed bilateral task-related activity in object processing areas, but spatial visualizers showed greater bilateral activity in object processing areas than did object visualizers.  In addition, spatial visualizers also showed greater activation in attentional areas than the object visualizers.  The data indicate that high object-processing ability is associated with more efficient use of visual-object resources, resulting in less neural activity in the object-processing pathway.

Currently, we are examining the neural underpinnings of visual-spatial and visual-object processing in members of different professions.

Developmental Patterns of Object vs. Spatial Visualization Abilities

We analyzed data from a large sample of children and adults (10 to 60 years old) and revealed differences between object and spatial developmental curves. Performance on spatial imagery tasks
Examples of Spatial  imagery tasks
peaked in puberty and then gradually declined. In contrast, performance on  object imagery tasks
Examples of object  imagery tasks
tended to increase with age, but more smoothly than on spatial measures, and did not show age-related decline as on spatial measures (Blazhenkova & Kozhevnikov, 2007; Blazhenkova, Becker, Kozhevnikov, in press).

Kids Test

Furthermore, gifted children
with interests and outstanding abilities in the fields of natural science, and visual art, humanities showed very similar patterns of performance on imagery tasks to those of adult professionals and college students specializing in visual art, science and humanities. (Kozhevnikov, Blazhenkova, Becker, 2010). These results suggest that dissociation between object and spatial imagery in individual differences might develop early in age, long before any comprehensive professional training.

Spatial Navigation and Individual Differences in Environmental Representations

This project involves studies of navigational abilities in virtual (driving simulator) and in real large-scale environments. We examined whether procedural- and survey-type representations of an environment would be present after traversing a novel route. We also examined whether individual differences in visual-spatial abilities predicted the types of representations formed. Our results challenge experience-based, sequential models of adults’ development of environmental representations. Furthermore, more spatially integrated sketch-maps were associated with higher spatial abilities. Our findings suggest that spatial abilities, not experience alone, affect the types of representations formed (Blajenkova, Motes, & Kozhevnikov, 2005; Motes, Blajenkova, & Kozhevnikov 2004).

Furthermore, with the ultimate goal to better assess, train and improve individuals navigational abilities, we developed and validated an assessment of large-scale egocentric abilities: the Perspective Taking Test
Perspective  Taking Test
. In addition, to improve assessment and training, we examine how people find their way while navigating in space, and what navigational strategies they employ.

Driving simulator

Click to watch video: Driving Simulator, 2-level sity, GMU

Training in Three-Dimensional Immersive Virtual Environments

Most studies on training imagery skills (either through a particular set of training exercises or indirectly through geometry, chemistry or physics courses) have produced at best small gains in spatial skills and limited transfer of training to a different stimulus set. We suggest that the reason for previous limitations of training visual-spatial abilities using conventional 2D tasks that is that encoding of spatial relations and cognitive strategies applied to perform visual-spatial transformations in 2D non-immersive and 3D immersive environments are different. Thus, in our research we particularly interested in investigating training in immersive 3D virtual environments , and the effects of individual differences in visual imagery ability on training efficacy.

Our research suggests that 3D immersive virtual environments
are critically important for effectively assessing and training large-scale spatial rotation and orientation abilities or any other tasks that might rely on the egocentric spatial system. The perceptual immersivity of an environment seems to be the most important factor in providing information for building an egocentric spatial reference frame needed in performance for real-world, large-scale spatial tasks and higher-order motor planning.

Immersive virtual environments are particularly relevant for training real-world egocentric spatial tasks, such as navigation, teleoperation, or medical surgery, which require visual-spatial processing, due to two major factors: immersion and feedback (Kozhevnikov & Garcia, in press).

In particular, we investigate how distinct visualization abilities
could be improved as a result of training in 3D immersive virtual environments. Our results demonstrate that 3D immersive environments appear to be significantly more efficient for training imagery skills than 2D or 3D non-immersive environments
. Our findings revealed that the 3D Perspective-Taking Test
facilitated a 200% increase in performance (i.e., the rate of error reduction), compared to the non-immersive 2D version of the test.

Visualization in Art

Our research suggests that visual artists rely on object, rather than spatial, visualization
in their work. We demonstrated that object visualization ability relates to specialization in visual art (Kozhevnikov, Blazhenkova, & Becker, 2010). Furthermore, the results from qualitative interviews with members of different professions (Blazhenkova & Kozhevnikov, submitted) demonstrate that the visualization processes and experiences of visual artists during solving their professional tasks are unique from those of scientists and humanities professionals at all stages of imagery processing (generation, inspection, maintenance and transformation), and can be characterized as pictorial, holistic, and spontaneous.

Moreover, our results demonstrated that visual artists, who rely on visual-object processing, were able to form abstract representations of abstract visual art, while those who rely on visual-spatial processing (scientists) failed to form such abstract representations.