Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Spatial versus Object Visualizers: A New Characterization of Visual Cognitive Style

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Spatial versus Object Visualizers: A New Characterization of Visual Cognitive Style

Article excerpt

The visual system processes object properties (such as shape and color) and spatial properties (such as location and spatial relations) in distinct systems, and neuropsychological evidence reveals that mental imagery respects this distinction. The findings reported in this article demonstrate that verbalizers typically perform at an intermediate level on imagery tasks, whereas visualizers can be divided into two groups. Specifically, scores on spatial and object imagery tasks, along with a visualizer-verbalizer cognitive style questionnaire, identified a group of visualizers who scored poorly on spatial imagery tasks but excelled on object imagery tasks. In contrast, a second group of visualizers scored high on spatial imagery tasks but poorly on object imagery tasks. The results also indicate that object visualizers encode and process images holistically, as a single perceptual unit, whereas spatial visualizers generate and process images analytically, part by part. In addition, we found that scientists and engineers excel in spatial imagery and prefer spatial strategies, whereas visual artists excel in object imagery and prefer object-based strategies.

A cognitive style is a psychological dimension that represents consistencies in how an individual acquires and processes information (Ausburn & Ausburn, 1978; Messick, 1984). Researchers have proposed a wide variety of cognitive style dimensions (e.g., Keefe, 1979; Messick, 1976). Some styles are conceptualized as typical responses to particular stimuli, and other styles are regarded as cognitive principles that underlie complex behavior. Although there have been many studies of cognitive styles, most of them were not motivated by a theory or general framework that specifies the dimensions upon which cognitive processing may vary. As a consequence, much of the previous work suffered from arbitrary distinctions and overlapping dimensions. Thus, it is not surprising that only a few of these dimensions continue to generate research, such as field dependence-independence (Witkin, Moore, Goodenough, & Cox, 1977), reflection-impulsivity (Messer, 1976), and the visualizer-verbalizer dimension (Kirby, Moore, & Shofield, 1988; Paivio, 1971 ; A. Richardson, 1977; Riding & Cheema, 1991). We focus on this last dimension in the present article.

Bartlett (1932), Paivio ( 1971 ), and A. Richardson (1977) were among the first to propose that individuals can be reliably classified as visualizers versus verbalizers. According to this view, visualizers (also called imagers) rely primarily on imagery when attempting to perform cognitive tasks, whereas verbalizers rely primarily on verbal-analytical strategies. Some researchers have suggested that visualizers are expected to be more field independent and holistic, whereas verbalizers are more field dependent and analytic (e.g., Kirby et al., 1988). A major challenge for visualizer-verbalizer cognitive style research has been to devise methods and instruments to assess the dimension accurately. Paivio (1971) was the first to design an individual differences questionnaire with which to evaluate the extent to which different people habitually use imagery versus verbal thinking. This questionnaire asked participants to indicate whether or not each of a list of statements, such as "I often use mental pictures to solve the problems," described their habitual method of thinking. However, factor analyses on the responses given to the individual items identified not only imagery and verbal factors, but also a number of more specific factors (Paivio & Harshman, 1983). Moreover, men tended to score high on items that related to the use of imagery in problem solving and in imagining moving objects, whereas women tended to score high on items that related to the use of imagery in remembering and generating mental images of previously perceived scenes. In an attempt to improve Paivio's questionnaire, A. Richardson selected 15 of its most discriminative items and composed a Verbalizer-Visualizer Questionnaire. …

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