Visual imagery and visual-spatial language - CiteSeerX

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Cognition, 46 (1993) 139-181

Visual imagery and visual-spatial language: Enhanced imagery abilities in deaf and hearing ASL signers* Karen



M. Kosslynb

and Ursula


“Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, 10010 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA bDepartment of Psychology and Social Relations, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA Received


22, 1991, final version



7, 1992

Abstract Emmorey, Enhanced

K., Kosslyn, S.M., and Bellugi, U., 1993. Visual imagery imagery abilities in deaf and hearing ASL signers. Cognition,

and visual-spatial 46: 139-181.


The ability to generate visual mental images, to maintain them, and to rotate them was studied in deaf signers of American Sign Language (ASL), hearing signers who have deaf parents, and hearing non-signers. These abilities are hypothesized to be integral to the production and comprehension of ASL. Results indicate that both deaf and hearing ASL signers have an enhanced ability to generate relatively complex images and to detect mirror image reversals. In contrast, there were no group differences

in ability to maintain information in images for brief periods or

to imagine objects rotating. Signers’ enhanced visual imagery abilities may be tied to specific linguistic requirements of ASL (referent visualization, topological classifiers, perspective

shift, and reversals during sign perception).

Correspondence to: Dr. Karen Emmorey, Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, 10010 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA; e-mail: [email protected] *This work was supported by NIH grant HD-13249 awarded to Ursula Bellugi and Karen Emmorey, as well as NIH grants DC-00146, DC-0021 and NSF grant BNS86-09085. It was also supported by NSF grant BNS 90-09619 and NINDS Grant 2 POl-17778-09 awarded to Stephen Kosslyn. We would like to thank Don Baer, Dennis Galvan, Petra Horn, Jenny Larson, and Lucinda O’Grady-Batch for their helpful assistance in testing subjects and data processing, and Phil Daly and Sania Hamilton for technical assistance. We also thank Edward Klima, Ovid Tzeng, and especially two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on the manuscript. We are also particularly grateful to Gallaudet University, Washington, DC, and to the deaf and hearing subjects who participated in these studies. OOlO-0277/93/$06.00


1993 - Elsevier

Science Publishers B.V. All




K. Emmorey

et al.

Introduction American

Sign Language


the language

of deaf communities

in the United

States, exploits visual-spatial mechanisms to express grammatical structure and memory, and mental transformations are function. Visual-spatial perception, prerequisites to grammatical processing in ASL (Emmorey & Corina, 1990; Emmorey, Norman, & O’Grady, 1991; Hanson & Lichtenstein, 1990), and also are central to visual mental imagery (Farah, 1988; Finke & Shepard, 1986; Kosslyn, 1980; Shepard & Cooper, 1982). Hence, it is of interest to examine the relation between the use of ASL and spatial imagery abilities. In this article we report

a series

of experiments

mental imagery in deaf signers their deaf parents, and hearing more


at imagery

in which

we compare



of ASL, hearing signers who learned non-signers. We investigate whether




are recruited