A Geoscience Example of Mental Rotation?

Kim Kastens
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published Jul 23, 2009

In the previous post, I mentioned mental rotation, that test where you have to say if one shape is the same as another shape except for having been rotated. Mental rotation is one of the most widely used tests of spatial abilities, with a long history and extensive literature.

Microfossils
(image info)

A geoscience task that seems to me somewhat like mental rotation is learning to identify microfossils in a microscope slide. The examples in the reference books are all lined up neatly, with individuals of closely related species all oriented the same way to make it easier to spot the definitive differences. The individuals on the microscope slide are turned every which way.

Do micropaleontologists use mental rotation? Do novices go through a phase where they use mental rotation to compare unknown individuals with illustrated type specimens? Do experts eventually develop perceptual short cuts that allow them to bypass the cognitively demanding mental rotation step? (I wouldn't know. I was always pathetic at fossil ID.) How could these questions be researched?



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