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Visual and spatial processing

Our visual and spatial skills help us find our orientation in space, perceive objects around us and organize them into a coherent visual scene, mentally imagine an object that isn't physically present. Mental imagery plays an important part e.g. for thought processes, dreams, problem-solving (like mental calculation), anticipating events (e.g. when playing chess), memorizing (e.g. an itinerary), understanding a verbal description, reasoning, recognizing objects presented in an unusual way...


Looking at the objects in the picture, you would probably find it easy to determine the cube closest to the pyramid. This task, however, relies on very complex cognitive processes. To perform this type of task, you have to be able to recognize the shape of each object and find the cube. You will then see that there are two cubes. The next step consists in determining which one is closest to the pyramid by estimating the distance between them. This decision is particularly difficult as you also need to consider the perspective.

In today's world, our vision is the sense we most use. We are constantly confronted with situations requiring us to recognize visual shapes and colors, to analyze an object in comparison to another, or to evaluate the distance between two objects. To be able to act within our environment, it is therefre very important to correctly analyze all visual information.

These automatic analyses are done by our visual system. To be more specific, two brain regions are in charge of these tasks: one region to analyze the shape of objects and another to analyze their spatial features (i.e. size, location, orientation). Considering the amount of information that needs to be processed to accurately analyze a visual scene, we can say that vision is a very complex cognitive function. We also use it to identify objects around us as well as their position in relation to other objects and to ourselves. These processes enable us to interact with our environment (grab objects, find our orientation, etc.).

Role of inside and outside environment

The objects around us represent landmarks which make it easier to find our orientation in space. However, finding the right orientation also depends on internal information we receive from our body, just like the position of our arm or hand.

Every time we plan a trip, our brain develops mental maps which, together with our familiar landmarks, helps us find and reuse an itinerary we already know.

Mental Imagery

Imagine that you are asked to determine the cube closest to the pyramid if the cube at the back had been moved ca. 3 inches closer to the pyramid. If you want to answer this question you need to mentally move the cube at the back the estimated distance of 3 inches and then decide which object is now closer to the pyramid. This type of question calls upon your mental imagery skills.

Mental imagery is a cognitive task which helps you perceive something that isn't there. However, mental imagery goes beyond mentally visualizing objects as you can also mentally represent pictures, sounds, smells, or sensations. When it comes to vision, mental imagery is the impression to actually "see" an image in your mind, like an absent person's face. This can help us create existing (faces, human bodies, numbers, words, objects, animals...) or imaginary (monsters, abstract figures) shapes, whether they are familiar or not, standing still or moving, colored or black and white.

When you have to perform a complex task, you first go mentally through the different steps to make sure you haven't left out or underestimated any of the available information. Take a chess player for example: In order to estimate how relevant each of the possible moves is, he/she mentally plays his own but also his opponent's moves as he cannot physically touch the pawns.

Every day we have to perform various mental imagery tasks. Our experiences are indeed full of elements we have stored in mind (i.e. faces, objects, sounds, shapes, sensations, smells...). We activate them again and again in a temporary memory (lien vers la partie mémoire à court terme) whenever we want to recall some of these elements. Mental images are personal as they are based on our personal experience. So if two people are asked to imagine a dog it is very likely that the two dogs will be very different.

Our creativity relies on our mental imagery skills

Creativity is based on mental imagery and allows us to create images of imaginary things. To do so, familiar and new elements are combined in an original and unusual way. Thanks to mental imagery, an individual can also mentally transform an object and turn it around in their "mind's eye": for instance, someone wants to move a piece of furniture, but before actually moving it, they need to imagine how it is going to look in various positions and locations. Mental rotation allows us to consider the different options we have until we have found the arrangement we are satisfied with.

In daily life

Our mental imagery skills are called upon every day for various tasks such as thinking, dreaming, reasoning and problem-solving, anticipating events, recognizing objects presented in an unusual way, considering an itinerary, understanding a verbal description...


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