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PLoS One. 2012;7(11):e51191. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051191. Epub 2012 Nov 30.

The relation between geometry and time in mental actions.

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  • 1Université de Bourgogne, Unité de Formation et de Recherche en Sciences et Techniques des Activités Physiques et Sportives, F-21078 Dijon, France.


Mental imagery is a cognitive tool that helps humans take decisions by simulating past and future events. The hypothesis has been advanced that there is a functional equivalence between actual and mental movements. Yet, we do not know whether there are any limitations to its validity even in terms of some fundamental features of actual movements, such as the relationship between space and time. Although it is impossible to directly measure the spatiotemporal features of mental actions, an indirect investigation can be conducted by taking advantage of the constraints existing in planar drawing movements and described by the two-thirds power law (2/3PL). This kinematic law describes one of the most impressive regularities observed in biological movements: movement speed decreases when curvature increases. Here, we compared the duration of identical actual and mental arm movements by changing the constraints imposed by the 2/3PL. In the first two experiments, the length of the trajectory remained constant, while its curvature (Experiment 1) or its number of inflexions (Experiment 2) was manipulated. The results showed that curvature, but not the number of inflexions, proportionally and similarly affected actual and mental movement duration, as expected from the 2/3PL. Two other control experiments confirmed that the results of Experiment 1 were not attributable to eye movements (Experiment 3) or to the perceived length of the displayed trajectory (Experiment 4). Altogether, our findings suggest that mental movement simulation is tuned to the kinematic laws characterizing actions and that kinematics of actual and mental movements is completely specified by the representation of their geometry.

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