The manipulation of mental representations in the human brain appears to share similarities with the physical manipulation of real-world objects. In particular, some neuroimaging studies have found increased activity in motor regions during mental rotation, suggesting that mental and physical operations may involve overlapping neural populations. Does the motor network contribute information processing to mental rotation? If so, does it play a similar computational role in both mental and manual rotation, and how does it communicate with the wider network of areas involved in the mental workspace? Here we used multivariate methods and fMRI to study 24 participants as they mentally rotated 3-D objects or manually rotated their hands in one of four directions. We find that information processing related to mental rotations is distributed widely among many cortical and subcortical regions, that the motor network becomes tightly integrated into a wider mental workspace network during mental rotation, and that motor network activity during mental rotation only partially resembles that involved in manual rotation. Additionally, these findings provide evidence that the mental workspace is organized as a distributed core network that dynamically recruits specialized subnetworks for specific tasks as needed.

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