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.

Neural and Behavioral Correlates of 3D Visual-Spatial Transformations

Our research examines how different environments affect encoding strategies and choice of allocentric versus egocentric frames of reference
. We compared subjects’ performance on allocentric (e.g., Mental Rotation Task
Mental Rotation
) and egocentric (e.g., Perspective-Taking Task
) spatial tasks in non-immersive and immersive 2D vs. 3D environments. Our findings demonstrate a unique pattern of responses in the 3D immersive environment, and suggest that 3D immersive environments are different from 3D non-immersive and 2D environments, and that immersion is necessary to provide adequate information for building a spatial reference frame crucial for high-order motor planning and egocentric encoding. Furthermore, they suggest that non-immersive environments might encourage the use of more “artificial” encoding strategies in which the 3D image is encoded with respect to an environmental frame of reference, and in particular, to the computer screen. On the other hand, immersive environments
can provide the necessary feedback for an individual to use the same strategy and retinocentric frame of reference as he/she would use in a real-world situation.

We plan to further investigate the neural correlates of 3D visual-spatial processing in immersive virtual environments using EEG.


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The research in the Mental Imagery lab focuses on investigating visualization processes and individual differences in mental imagery in cognitive style. In particular, we examine how individual differences in visualization ability affect more complex activities, such as spatial navigation, learning and problem solving in mathematics, science and art. We also explore ways to train visual-object and visual-spatial imagery skills and design three-dimensional immersive virtual environments that can accommodate individual differences and learning styles.

The Mental Imagery and Human-Computer Interaction lab research focuses in five main directions:

Our approach integrates qualitative and quantitative behavioral research methods, as well as neuroimaging techniques (EEG, fMRI). Furthermore, we develop and validate assessment and training paradigms for visualization ability, using  3D immersive virtual reality.

Based on behavioral and neuroscience evidence, we formulated a theoretical framework of individual differences in visual imagery, and suggested that visualization ability is not a single undifferentiated construct, but rather is divided into two main dimensions: object and spatial, and that the spatial dimension is further divided into allocentric and egocentric dimensions. All these visualization abilities underlie success at different complex, real-world tasks, and predict specialization in different professional and academic domains.