The purpose of the present study was to seek evidence that mental rotation is accomplished by transforming a representation held in visual short-term memory (VSTM). In order to accomplish this goal, we utilized the sustained posterior contralateral negativity (SPCN), an electrophysiological index of the maintenance of information in VSTM. We hypothesized that if mental rotation is accomplished by transforming a representation held in VSTM, then the duration that this representation is maintained in VSTM should be related to the degree to which the representation must be rotated to reach the desired orientation. Therefore, the SPCN should offset at progressively longer latencies as the degree of rotation required increases. We tested this prediction in two experiments utilizing rotated alphanumeric characters. Experiment 1 utilized a normal versus mirror discrimination task that is known to require mental rotation. Experiment 2 utilized a letter versus digit discrimination, a task that does not require mental rotation. In Experiment 1, the offset latency of the SPCN wave increased with increases in the angle of rotation of the target. This effect indicates that targets were maintained in VSTM for longer durations as the angle of rotation increased. Experiment 2 revealed that target orientation did not affect SPCN offset latency when subjects did not adopt a mental rotation strategy, confirming that the effects on the SPCN latency effects observed in Experiment 1 were not due to the mere presentation of rotated patterns. Thus, these two experiments provide clear evidence that mental rotation involves representations maintained in VSTM.

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