How do human beings perceive a stable world amidst changing perspectives? This question is at the heart of the cognitive process of spatial updating. My research has examined how observers update configurations of objects during changes in perspective induced by different imagined movement. In the Viewer task, participants imagine rotating themselves rotating around the outside of an array of objects. In the Array task, they imagine the array itself rotating. The results of several studies have shown that participants are consistently faster and more accurate in the 'viewer" task than in the "array" task. This trend holds up over manipulations such as collapsing the array into single objects of unfamiliar and familiar configurations, as well as for updating during physical movement.
Wraga, M., Creem, S.H., & Proffitt, D.R. (2004). Spatial updating of virtual displays during self-and display rotation. Memory & Cognition, 32, 399-415.
Wraga, M. (2003). Thinking outside the body: An advantage for spatial updating during imagined versus physical self-rotation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 29, 993-1005.
Wraga, M., Creem. S.H., & Proffitt, D.R. (2000). Updating displays after imagined object- and viewer rotations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 26, 151-168.
Wraga, M., Creem. S.H., & Proffitt, D.R. (1999). The influence of spatial reference frames on imagined object- and viewer rotations. Acta Psychologica, 102, 247-264.
There is evidence that some mental tasks activate motor areas of the brain, even though such tasks do not involve physical movement. My research examines the conditions under which motor activation is found in mental rotation tasks. We have found that mental rotations of objects elicit motor activation, but that mental rotations of the self do not. We have also demonstrated that motor activation from one mental rotation task can “carry over” to another task. These findings hint at a flexibility within the brain for implementing multiple rotation processes
Wraga, M., Shephard, J., Church, J., Inati, S,.J., & Kosslyn, S.M.(2005). Mental rotation of self versus objects: An fMRI study. Neuropsychologia, 43, 1351-1361.
Wraga, M., Kosslyn, S.M., Thompson, W.L., & Alpert, N.M. (2003). Implicit transfer of motor strategies in mental rotation. Brain & Cognition, 52, 135-143.
Creem, S. H., Downs, T. H., Wraga, M., Harrington, G., Fox, K. V., Proffitt, D. R., Downs, J. H. (2001). An fMRI study of imagined self-rotation. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 1, 239-249.
Kosslyn, S.M., Thompson, W.L., Wraga, M., & Alpert, N.M. (2001). Imagining rotation by endogenous versus exogenous forces: Distinct neural mechanisms. NeuroReport, 12, 2519-2525.
Recently I have begun looking at environmental factors affecting spatial cognition performance. Stereotype threat is the pressure members of stigmatized groups feel when their actions potentially may confirm a negative stereotype associated with their group. For example, women reminded of a negative stereotype about math abilities perform worse on a subsequent math test compared to women given neutral information.
Our research shows that the invocation of stereotypes can affect mental rotation performance, even though mental rotation is one of a few cognitive abilities for which a large and reliable gender gap (favoring males) endures. Our latest research uses fMRI techniques to explore the brain mechanisms underlying enhanced and degraded imagined self-rotation performance in women.
Wraga, M., Duncan, L., Jacobs, E., Helt, M., & Church, J. (in press). Stereotype susceptibility narrows the gender gap in imagined self-rotation performance. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
Wraga, M., Helt, M., Jacobs, E., & Sullivan, K. Neural basis of stereotype-induced shifts in women’s mental rotation performance (under review).