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 output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Citations (Scopus)


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)143-152
Number of pages10
JournalCognitive Processing
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2013
Externally publishedYes


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