Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Anatomy and Cell Biology


Dr. Timothy D. Wilson


This dissertation sought to determine if eye movements could serve as an indicator of success in spatial reasoning, and if eye movements associated with successful completion could be applied to strategically improve spatial reasoning.

Using the line images of Shepard and Metzler, an electronic test of mental rotations ability (EMRT) was designed. Two versions of the test were created, allowing for both a timed (6 seconds per question) and untimed testing environment. Four experiments were designed and completed to relate mental rotation ability (MRA) scores from the EMRT, to patterns in chrononumeric and visual salience data. In each experiment, participants completed the EMRT under a different protocol. These protocols included an untimed EMRT, a timed EMRT, a within-participant crossover study where participants completed both the timed, and untimed EMRT in series, and a training crossover study where low MRA participants completed the timed EMRT in both a guided and unguided environment.

In the untimed experiment, individuals of high and low MRA were asked to complete the EMRT while their eye movements were observed. As no time limit was imposed, the results allowed for observations based on MRA alone, and served to demonstrate and how individuals of different skill level differ in terms of eye movement.

In the following experiment, the addition of a time limit to the EMRT revealed how individuals of high and low MRA perform when under a time restriction. The results of the Timed experiment confirmed differences between the high and low MRA group in terms of eye movements, and attention to salient regions of test images.

In the third experiment, the addition of a time limit was further explored through a crossover design. By adding a time limit to an MRT, the ability of individuals to solve spatial problems is impaired, and is manifest in eye movements. Data derived from the Crossover Experiment suggested that salience-based metrics might serve to distinguish between groups of MRA, and that time restrictions may influence both participant accuracy, and identification of visually salient elements.

The results from the first three experiments were then applied in the Guidance Experiment to confirm the role that visual salience plays in the context of spatial problem solving. By mapping the apprehension patterns of successful high MRA individuals onto the EMRT, low MRA individuals could be guided to salient areas on the timed EMRT. The results revealed that the application of visual guidance is an effective mechanism for MRA training.

This research attends to a previously unaddressed niche in eye-movement and spatial ability training literature. As a result, it may serve as a foundation to cultivate methods of honing and improving spatial skills in the general population.