Dissecting hemisphere-specific contributions to visual spatial imagery using parametric brain mapping

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Abstract

In the current study we aimed to empirically test previously proposed accounts of a division of labour between the left and right posterior parietal cortices during visuospatial mental imagery. The representation of mental images in the brain has been a topic of debate for several decades. Although the posterior parietal cortex is involved bilaterally, previous studies have postulated that hemispheric specialisation might result in a division of labour between the left and right parietal cortices. In the current fMRI study, we used an elaborated version of a behaviourally-controlled spatial imagery paradigm, the mental clock task, which involves mental image generation and a subsequent spatial comparison between two angles. By systematically varying the difference between the two angles that are mentally compared, we induced a symbolic distance effect: smaller differences between the two angles result in higher task difficulty. We employed parametrically weighed brain imaging to reveal brain areas showing a graded activation pattern in accordance with the induced distance effect. The parametric difficulty manipulation influenced behavioural data and brain activation patterns in a similar matter. Moreover, since this difficulty manipulation only starts to play a role from the angle comparison phase onwards, it allows for a top-down dissociation between the initial mental image formation, and the subsequent angle comparison phase of the spatial imagery task. Employing parametrically weighed fMRI analysis enabled us to top-down disentangle brain activation related to mental image formation, and activation reflecting spatial angle comparison. The results provide first empirical evidence for the repeatedly proposed division of labour between the left and right posterior parietal cortices during spatial imagery.

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