Cognitive strategies in the mental rotation task revealed by EEG spectral power

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The classic mental rotation task (MRT; Shepard & Metzler, 1971) is commonly thought to measure mental rotation, a cognitive process involving covert simulation of motor rotation. Yet much research suggests that the MRT recruits both motor simulation and other analytic cognitive strategies that depend on visuospatial representation and visual working memory (WM). In the present study, we investigated cognitive strategies in the MRT using time-frequency analysis of EEG and independent component analysis. We scrutinized sensorimotor mu (μ) power reduction, associated with motor simulation, parietal alpha (pα) power reduction, associated with visuospatial representation, and frontal midline theta (fmΘ) power enhancement, associated with WM maintenance and manipulation. μ power increased concomitant with increasing task difficulty, suggesting reduced use of motor simulation, while pα decreased and fmΘ power increased, suggesting heightened use of visuospatial representation processing and WM, respectively. These findings suggest that MRT performance involves flexibly trading off between cognitive strategies, namely a motor simulation-based mental rotation strategy and WM-intensive analytic strategies based on task difficulty. Flexible cognitive strategy use may be a domain-general cognitive principle that underlies aptitude and spatial intelligence in a variety of cognitive domains. We close with discussion of the present study's implications as well as future directions.

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