Cognitive Processing

, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 163–173 | Cite as

Twisting space: are rigid and non-rigid mental transformations separate spatial skills?

  • Kinnari Atit
  • Thomas F. Shipley
  • Basil Tikoff
Research Report


Cognitive science has primarily studied the mental simulation of spatial transformations with tests that focus on rigid transformations (e.g., mental rotation). However, the events of our world are not limited to rigid body movements. Objects can undergo complex non-rigid discontinuous and continuous changes, such as bending and breaking. We developed a new task to assess mental visualization of non-rigid transformations. The Non-rigid Bending test required participants to visualize a continuous non-rigid transformation applied to an array of objects by asking simple spatial questions about the position of two forms on a bent transparent sheet of plastic. Participants were to judge the relative position of the forms when the sheet was unbent. To study the cognitive skills needed to visualize rigid and non-rigid events, we employed four tests of mental transformations—the Non-rigid Bending test (a test of continuous non-rigid mental transformation), the Paper Folding test and the Mental Brittle Transformation test (two tests of non-rigid mental transformation with local rigid transformations), and the Vandenberg and Kuse (Percept Motor Skills 47:599–604, 1978) Mental Rotation test (a test of rigid mental transformation). Performance on the Mental Brittle Transformation test and the Paper Folding test independently predicted performance on the Non-rigid Bending test and performance on the Mental Rotation test; however, mental rotation performance was not a unique predictor of mental bending performance. Results are consistent with separable skills for rigid and non-rigid mental simulation and illustrate the value of an ecological approach to the analysis of the structure of spatial thinking.


Mental transformations Rigid transformations Non-rigid transformations Mental visualizations 



Except the first author, all subsequent authors are listed alphabetically. This research was supported by a grant to the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center, funded by the National Science Foundation (SBE-0541957 and SBE-1041707), and by a Fostering Interdisciplinary Research on Education grant, funded by the National Science Foundation (grant number DRL-1138619).


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Copyright information

© Marta Olivetti Belardinelli and Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kinnari Atit
    • 1
  • Thomas F. Shipley
    • 1
  • Basil Tikoff
    • 2
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyTemple UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.Department of GeologyUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA
  3. 3.Department of GeoscienceUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA

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