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.

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.

Visualization Processes in Physics

In this line of research, we investigate how visualization may facilitate learning scientific concepts and solving physics problems. In particular, we investigate how individual differences in visualization ability affect learning sciences and processing abstract scientific representations. Our research (Kozhevnikov, Hegarty, & Mayer, 2002; Kozhevnikov, & Thornton, 2006) has shown that spatial visualization ability predicts success at solving mechanics problems, and relates to specialization in science (Kozhevnikov, Blazhenkova, & Becker, 2010). Furthermore, we showed that high- and low-spatial visualizers generate qualitatively different mental images and use different strategies when solving mechanics problems. The analysis of eye-fixation data (Kozhevnikov, Motes, & Hegarty, 2007), revealed that low-spatial ability participants spent a greater amount of time studying the overall shape of graphs compared to studying the graph axes, whereas high-spatial ability participants spent more time studying the axes than the overall shape of the graph.

In addition, our preliminary results (Blazhenkova & Kozhevnikov, submitted) from qualitative interviews with members of different professions about their visualization processes while solving professional tasks revealed that scientists report visualization experiences unique from those of other professionals, which can be characterized as schematic, sequential, easily transformed and controlled.

Allocentric vs. Egocentric Spatial Processing

Our research on allocentric-egocentric spatial processing includes three main directions:

This line of research focuses on examining the dissociation between the two types of spatial imagery transformations: allocentric spatial transformations, which involve an object-to-object representational system and encode information about the location of one object or its parts with respect to other objects, versus egocentric perspective transformations that involve a self-to-object representational system.

Spatial Coding Systems

In our lab, we examine individual differences in egocentric (imagining taking a different perspective in space) and allocentric (mentally manipulating objects from a stationary point of view ) spatial abilities, and develop assessments of these abilities .Our research also seeks to discover the relation of these two types of spatial ability to locomotion and spatial navigation.


meditationKozhevnikov, Louchakova, Josipovic, & Motes (2009) examined the effects of meditation on mental imagery, evaluating Buddhist monks’ reports concerning their extraordinary imagery skills. Practitioners of Buddhist meditation were divided into two groups according to their preferred meditation style: Deity Yoga (focused attention on an internal visual image) or Open Presence (evenly distributed attention, not directed to any particular object). Both groups of meditators completed computerized mental-imagery tasks before and after meditation. Their performance was compared with that of control groups, who either rested or performed other visuospatial tasks between testing sessions. The results indicate that all the groups performed at the same baseline level, but after meditation, Deity Yoga practitioners demonstrated a dramatic increase in performance on imagery tasks compared with the other groups. The results suggest that Deity meditation specifically trains one’s capacity to access heightened visuospatial processing resources, rather than generally improving visuospatial imagery abilities.

Maria Kozhevnikov was featured in the Association for Psychological Science press release announcing her paper: The Enhancement of Visuospatial Processing Efficiency Through Buddhist Deity Meditation.