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.

Ecological Validation of Individual Differences in Object vs. Spatial Ability

We investigated the relationship between visual-object ability, visual-spatial ability, and different fields of study/areas of specialization in college students, professionals, and gifted children, specializing in visual art, science and humanities.

Our results (Kozhevnikov, Blazhenkova, & Becker, 2010) showed that in all age groups, visual-object ability discriminatively relates to specialization in visual art, in the same way as visual-spatial ability relates to specialization in physics, mathematics, and other natural sciences. Across different age groups with different professional specializations, participants with above-average object visualization abilities (artists) had below-average spatial visualization abilities, and the inverse was true for those with above-average spatial visualization abilities (scientists). Our results show that object and spatial visualization discriminately relate to different specializations
, thus supporting the ecological validity of the distinction between object and spatial imagery abilities.

Development of Spatial Ability Tests

In our lab, we design, refine, and validate assessments of visualization abilities. In particular, we design and validate tests in immersive and non-immersive environments.

Our research has demonstrated individual differences in visualization abilities; i.e., dissociation between object and spatial visual abilities (Kozhevnikov, Kosslyn, & Shephard, 2005), and a further distinction between spatial allocentric and spatial egocentric abilities (Kozhevnikov & Hegarty, 2001). Although allocentric and egocentric spatial abilities are correlated, they were also found to have distinguishable characteristics and showed different relationships to real world performance (Kozhevnikov, Motes, Rasch, & Blajenkova, 2006; Kozhevnikov & Hegarty, 2001; Kozhevnikov, Blazhenkova, & Becker, 2010).


Our lab has developed unique tests for assessing egocentric mental transformation ability, the 2D and 3D Perspective-Taking test, which reliably predict spatial navigation performance (i.e., spatial navigation and orientation). This Test is currently used for testing the spatial abilities of navigators, pilots and, also, in Man-Vehicle Laboratory at MIT for predicting astronauts’ spatial orientation skills.

Perspective Taking Test:

Perspective Taking

Furthermore, experimental verification and comparative analysis with 2D non-immersive and immersive 3D Perspective-TakingAbility tests provided experimental evidence that the new 3-D PTA test is the best and unique instrument to measure spatial orientation and spatial navigation abilities.

In addition, we developed 3D immersive tests of allocentric visualization ability (Mental Rotation)
Mental Rotation

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