We can spontaneously form images of the world from another person’s perspective, research finds.
This allows us to virtually see things from another person’s perspective in an instant.
The new study shows our brains can change our perspective without doing any ‘mental rotation’.
Mental rotation is our ability to manipulate objects in our minds and, cognitively, it is hard work.
Ms Eleanor Ward, the study’s first author, explains that sometimes we don’t need to do this mental rotation:
“Imagine you’re in a car and you see a pedestrian crossing the road, and a bus is travelling at speed towards the crossing.
Suddenly you realize the driver hasn’t seen the pedestrian and could hit them, so you beep your horn.
How did you make this split-second decision?
Our study suggests you automatically put yourself in the bus driver’s shoes and saw the scene through their eyes.”
The results come from a study in which 203 people had to judge whether letters had been rotated or not.
Below is an example:
All the Rs on the top row are the ‘same’ R rotated.
The Rs on the bottom row are all mirror-image Rs and are also the ‘same’ R.
The Rs on the top row are not the same as the Rs on the bottom row.
The results of the study showed that people were much quicker to spot whether the letters matched when they took someone else’s perspective.
In other words, they didn’t have to mentally rotate the images — they ‘saw’ the image through the other person’s eyes.
Dr Patric Bach, study co-author, said:
“Perspective taking is an important part of social cognition.
It helps us understand how the world looks from another’s point of view.
It is important for many everyday activities in which we need interact with other people.
It helps us to empathize with them, or to work out what they are thinking.
Our study provides new insights that people can do this because they very quickly and spontaneously form a mental image of how the world looks to another person.
As soon as we have such a mental image, it is easy to put ourselves in the other person’s place and to predict how they will behave.”
The study was published in the journal Current Biology (Ward et al., 2019).