Cognitive Processing

, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 143–152 | Cite as

Breaking new ground in the mind: an initial study of mental brittle transformation and mental rigid rotation in science experts

  • Ilyse Resnick
  • Thomas F. Shipley
Research Report


The current study examines the spatial skills employed in different spatial reasoning tasks, by asking how science experts who are practiced in different types of visualizations perform on different spatial tasks. Specifically, the current study examines the varieties of mental transformations. We hypothesize that there may be two broad classes of mental transformations: rigid body mental transformations and non-rigid mental transformations. We focus on the disciplines of geology and organic chemistry because different types of transformations are central to the two disciplines: While geologists and organic chemists may both confront rotation in the practice of their profession, only geologists confront brittle transformations. A new instrument was developed to measure mental brittle transformation (visualizing breaking). Geologists and organic chemists performed similarly on a measure of mental rotation, while geologists outperformed organic chemists on the mental brittle transformation test. The differential pattern of skill on the two tests for the two groups of experts suggests that mental brittle transformation and mental rotation are different spatial skills. The roles of domain general cognitive resources (attentional control, spatial working memory, and perceptual filling in) and strategy in completing mental brittle transformation are discussed. The current study illustrates how ecological and interdisciplinary approaches complement traditional cognitive science to offer a comprehensive approach to understanding the nature of spatial thinking.


Mental brittle transformation Mental rotation Ecological approach STEM Expertize Rigid body Non-rigid 



This research was supported in part by a grant to the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center, funded by the National Science Foundation (grant numbers SBE-0541957 and SBE-1041707), and by a Fostering Interdisciplinary Research on Education grant, funded by the National Science Foundation (grant number DRL-1138619). The authors wish to thank Chris Shilling for help constructing the stimuli; Carol Ormand, Cathy Manduca, and Basil Tikoff for their insights into reasoning about deformations in geology; and all the experts who volunteered their time to participate in this research.


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Copyright information

© Marta Olivetti Belardinelli and Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyTemple UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA

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