2. *Do* Think of an Elephant


Your imagination.

A stopwatch (or phone app or you can just count seconds: one hundred, one hundred-and-one, one hundred-and-two, one hundred-and-three… or get someone else to do it for you).


There is no background, you must imagine it.


Have your stopwatch (or phone app, or mental counter or helper) handy to start and stop without needing to look at it (you’ll see why shortly).

READ THE INSTRUCTION BELOW before starting the experiment.

Because for most of the time your eyes need to be closed tight shut.

I had to rehearse it myself. It’s not that hard but a dry run helps with starting and stopping the timer without breaking concentration.


Shut your eyes and think of an elephant.

Your elephant is facing directly toward you. Picture its eyes, tusks, greyness, sturdy legs, big flapping ears.

Are you ready? Do you hold a solid four-ton elephant in your imagination?


Now you must rotate your elephant.

Your mind alone must do the heavy lifting (or in this case heavy rotating). Think of yourself as using the power of thought to act on the imaginary elephant, which you have to heft round so it is now facing away from you, so you see its bum and tail.

1. Ready steady go! Mentally rotate elephant.

2. When elephant in correct orientation stop timer.

3. Open eyes and write down time.


Now that you have conducted the rehearsal:

1. Repeat the same procedure, that is record how long you take to turn the elephant so it goes from facing you to facing away from you.

2. Do it again but with this variation: now you have to mentally rotate the elephant full circle so that at the end it looks toward you again, and note the time as before.


If you are like me you find that rotating the imaginary elephant takes time! Something is happening inside your head that is like physically manipulating an object, even though there is no real object. And a full rotation of my elephant takes about – guess what – twice as long as a half-rotation. It varies but usually I take about 6 s for a half rotation, 12 for a whole turn.


This is not of course a rigorous scientific experiment. But it does suggest that when we move mental objects we base the imaginary movement on experience of shifting real things. There is a considerable body of research on this, involving much better experimental designs that leaves little room for doubt. Shepard and Metzler were the pioneers (scroll down to find their article).

And did you rotate your elephant to the left or right? I didn’t say which to do. Are you are left or right handed? I’d be interested if you could post a comment to tell me the two things, so we can see if there is a connection.

And does the size of an imaginary animal matter? What if you try to mentally rotate a blue whale, about 50 times bigger by weight than an elephant? Or a human, about 50 times smaller?

Next experiment

The next in the series, 3/101, will be ‘Duck tape specs’ .


About partialinsight

One evening I had a stroke. Half my sight vanished overnight. Adapting made me grasp how amazing the visual system and brain are. It also taught me to understand disability completely differently and I'm grateful for the lesson.
This entry was posted in Art and vision, The brain and visual perception, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to 2. *Do* Think of an Elephant

  1. Lynne says:

    I tried this one. I wasn’t surprised to find I couldn’t do it. Due to severe ‘lazy eye’ from childhood, I have what one optician described as ‘effectively monocular vision’ & can’t mentally visualise 3D things. So I can ‘see’ an elephant from the front, & flip to ‘seeing’ it from the back, but I can’t do the manipulation.

  2. hi Lynne

    That’s very interesting, I’d never realised that mental rotation was related to 3D perception. Does it also affect the ability to imaging things moving nearer and farther – can you visualise the elephant approaching you?

  3. Lynne says:

    Nope – only walking from side to side! I bet that explains why I’ve always had difficulty giving people directions, I could walk them to a particular location, but struggle to re-create the route in my head to describe it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s