Capacity for Visual Features in Mental Rotation

Yangqing Xu*, Steven L. Franconeri

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Although mental rotation is a core component of scientific reasoning, little is known about its underlying mechanisms. For instance, how much visual information can someone rotate at once? We asked participants to rotate a simple multipart shape, requiring them to maintain attachments between features and moving parts. The capacity of this aspect of mental rotation was strikingly low: Only one feature could remain attached to one part. Behavioral and eye-tracking data showed that this single feature remained “glued” via a singular focus of attention, typically on the object’s top. We argue that the architecture of the human visual system is not suited for keeping multiple features attached to multiple parts during mental rotation. Such measurement of capacity limits may prove to be a critical step in dissecting the suite of visuospatial tools involved in mental rotation, leading to insights for improvement of pedagogy in science-education contexts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1241-1251
Number of pages11
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 7 2015


  • attention
  • capacity
  • eye tracking
  • mental rotation
  • selection
  • tracking
  • visual working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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