By Jonathan Wai

At 16, Albert Einstein wrote his first scientific paper titled “The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields.”  This was the result of his famous gedanken experiment in which he visually imagined chasing after a light beam.  The insights he gained from this thought experiment led to the development of his theory of special relativity.

At 5, Nikola Tesla informed his father that he would harness the power of water.  What resulted was his creation of a water-powered egg beater. Tesla, who invented the basis of alternating current (AC) power systems, had the unusual talent to imagine his inventions entirely in his mind before building them. He was apparently able to visualize and operate an entire engine in his mind, testing each part to see which one would break first.

Thomas Edison—famous for developing the light bulb and more than 1,000 patents—was fascinated with mechanical objects at an early age.  He once said: “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”  He wasn’t joking. In his lab he wanted to have on hand “a stock of almost every conceivable material.”  According to an 1887 news article, his lab was stocked with chemicals, screws, needles, cords, wires, hair, silk, cocoons, hoofs, shark’s teeth, deer horns, cork, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, amber, rubber, ores, minerals, and numerous other things.

Einstein imagined with his mind. Tesla imagined with his mind and built with his hands. Edison imagined with both. They all had extraordinary spatial talent—“the ability to generate, retain, retrieve, and transform well-structured visual images.”

Spatial thinking “finds meaning in the shape, size, orientation, location, direction or trajectory, of objects,” and their relative positions, and “uses the properties of space as a vehicle for structuring problems, for finding answers, and for expressing solutions.” Spatial skill can be measured through reliable and valid paper-and-pencil tests—primarily ones that assess three dimensional mental visualization and rotation. Read more about examples of items that measure spatial skill here.

But despite the value of these kinds of skills, spatially talented students are, by and large, neglected. Nearly a century ago, a talent search conducted by Lewis Terman used the highly verbal Stanford-Binet in an attempt to discover the brightest kids in California. Perhaps due to the fact that the Stanford-Binet did not include a spatial test, William Shockley and Luis Alvarez, who would go on to become famous physicists and win the Nobel Prize, missed the cut.*

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Today talent searches often use the SAT and ACT which include math, verbal, and writing sections, but do not include a spatial measure. All of the physicists described above (and Tesla who could do integral calculus in his head) would likely qualify today at least on the math section, and Edison would likely have qualified on the verbal section due to his early love of reading.  However, there are many students who have high spatial talent but relatively lower math and verbal talent who are likely missed by modern talent searches and therefore fail to have their talent developed to the extent it could.  Also, because colleges use the SAT and ACT for selecting students, many high spatial students likely do not make it onto college campuses.

Nearly every standardized test given to students today is heavily verbal and mathematical.  Students who have the high spatial and lower math/verbal profile are therefore missed in nearly every school test and their talent likely goes missed, and thus under-developed. What’s more, spatially talented people are often less verbally fluent, and unlikely to be very vocal. Finally, teachers are unlikely to have a high spatial profile themselves (and typically have the inverted profile of high verbal and lower math/spatial), and although they probably do not intend to, they’re more likely to miss seeing talent in students who are not very much like themselves.

So what does the research tell us?  In a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, my colleagues and I used longitudinal data from multiple data sets across 50 years to show that spatial talent (in addition to math and verbal talent) is important for success in STEM domains. The data came from the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), Project Talent, and the GRE. Of those students in the top 1 percent of spatial talent, roughly 70 percent were not in the top 1 percent in either math or verbal talent—showing a large fraction of students having the high spatial but lower math/verbal profile.

Now a new study by Harrison Kell, David Lubinski, Camilla Benbow, and James Steiger published in Psychological Science has made the connection between early spatial talent and creativity in adult life even stronger. The study, based on SMPY data, showed that spatial skill had an increment of prediction over and above math and verbal skills (assessed at age 13) when looking at scholarly publications and patents—even those in STEM.

Can We Enhance Spatial Skill?

So, can enhancing spatial thinking improve outcomes in STEM?  A new study by David Uttal, David Miller, and Nora Newcombe published in Current Directions in Psychological Science notes that “a recent quantitative synthesis of 206 spatial training studies found an average training improvement of 0.47 standard deviations.”  The authors suggest that including spatial thinking in STEM curricula would “enhance the number of Americans with the requisite cognitive skills to enter STEM careers.”

The research is clear that spatial skill is important for STEM careers, and perhaps we can even enhance spatial skill to help more people join the STEM fields. What we need is research directed at understanding the best ways to develop the talent of students who are high spatial, but relatively lower math/verbal. Perhaps spatial video games and online learning coupled with hands on interventions might help these students.

[RELATED: How Thinking in 3D Can Improve Math and Science Skills]

This is what’s so great about the Maker Movement and “Why Kids Need to Tinker to Learn”: It will help encourage all students to tinker, invent, and to use their hands to make things again. Certainly the skills encouraged by the makers might be helpful to students who go on to pursue STEM careers. But the movement probably will be most effective for spatially talented students who have been neglected in our school systems.

One student who felt neglected in the school system was researcher Matthew Peterson. As a child, Peterson felt that he was drowning in words and numbers. And in many ways he was, as he was identified as dyslexic—similar to Einstein and Edison. This bothered him so much that today he has developed a way to teach math in an entirely visual manner called ST Math.

Ultimately we need to have the individual skill profile of each student matched to individualized instruction tailored to them. We need to experiment in the laboratory and classroom and conduct rigorous evaluations to find out what actually works.

Redefining and Valuing a Different Kind of Creativity

Today we idolize creative actors, dancers, artists, musicians, and writers. But when was the last time someone raved to you about a creative engineer or mathematician? Why isn’t STEM considered creative or cool? Longitudinal research has made a solid link between early spatial talent and later creativity. Yet for whatever reason, we don’t appreciate the highly creative nature of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

It would seem impossible to argue that the theory of relativity, alternating current, or the light bulb were not creative innovations.  And yet it is easy to forget that these advances fall squarely in the STEM disciplines.  Consider the device you are reading this article from right now.  Spatially talented people imagined it in their minds eye and then they built it.  Not everyone is going to be an Einstein, Tesla, or Edison, but if we identify the many spatially talented students who have been neglected in our school systems we might discover many brilliant kids who are just waiting to develop their creative potential.  We need to help them.  After all, we will ultimately depend on their visions to help create our future.

Jonathan Wai is a researcher at the Duke University Talent Identification Program and Case Western Reserve University and writes “Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative” for Psychology Today.

*An earlier version of this post stated that former President Richard Nixon was identified as part of the Terman talent search. We regret this error. 

  • geri caruso

    I agree that there is great creativity in science and that there are skills that need to be developed or allowed to develop early on that are the foundations for that creativity. For those of us who aren’t likely to invent a theory of relativity or anything close…. it is pretty handy to have the special skills to know if the leftover soup will fit into that container or how far it is between you and the car in front of you. But the jury is still out and will be for some time on whether those skills will be taught by video games. The people you mention didn’t develop their skills by staring at tiny screens… they did it by using the body evolution gave them and the brain that is tacked onto it. Here is another one for your list: Frank Lloyd Wright played with blocks while he was a kid and credited that with his design ability. Our chubby little darlings need to put the games down and get off the couch (for lots of reasons), and they will figure our how to move through space chasing that light beam.

    • Jonathan Wai

      Geri, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. You are right that the people I mention did not grow up developing their spatial talent with devices like kids do today. As I mentioned in my article, I think we need to conduct rigorous evaluations of interventions to see what actually works for different types of students. However, whether we like it or not, those screens are rather widespread and are already part of the education of students everywhere. I agree that hands on activities are likely important. – Jonathan Wai

  • Jeanne Bernish

    Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth has included a Spatial Battery for at least the last 8 years: http://cty.jhu.edu/talent/testing/about/stb.html – it is one of the reasons we selected aptitude testing through JHU rather than the other talent search organizations… and I am very glad we did.

  • Jen Rose

    Where do we find kids that have high spatial skills who have been overlooked by the system? Just walk down the hall to the the 3D art classes! Kids that excel in arts
    such as sculpture or ceramics have exceptional spatial skills. I teach Ceramics and 3D design at a college and many of my students are exceptionally bright but may not test well on standardized tests. On the flip side, STEM students should consider taking 3D Design or Ceramics to bolster their creativity and spatial reasoning. If the class is taught well, students will have exercised their critical thinking and problem solving skills more than they ever expected.

  • Jean McDonald

    Dr. Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences is premised on the recognition of differing cognitive strengths when defining intelligence. I have a prominent poster in my office with the admonition: Don’t ask how smart is your child. Ask how is your child smart. By designing curricula that provides at least one activity for each lesson that calls for the demonstration of a student’s dominant intelligence, each student is given the opportunity to “shine” by presenting a praiseworthy application of the content or skill of a performance objective or objectives associated with the lesson. The behaviorist principle that positive reinforcement of effort is the motivator for perpetuating interest in and commitment to learning is integral to instilling a productive outcome for present and future endeavors. Because not only teacher assessment is critical in molding a self-image of confidence in one’s ability within the classroom but also the appreciation of peers for a job well done, which may be even more significant, the activities completed by the student which showcase the student’s dominant intelligence are in a format to be viewed by classmates by integrating them into technologies such as PowerPoint, screencasts,and auditory modalities, as well as nondigital artifacts and models.

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  • John P Darrow

    Want to see spatial learning in action? Take a look in any Montessori classroom. Once again, science is finally seeing what Montessori discovered decades ago through observation.

    • Old School

      You are absolutely correct! As educators who observed the Montessori program our daughter was enrolled in for kindergarten, we we amazed at how smoothly the system ran and how every child performed well in a self directed and calm environment. ADD, cognitively impaired, average, above average- each child did well. I am still a proponent 10 years later!

  • floatingbones

    There are similar anecdotal stories about a first-grade Buckminster Fuller creating structure with peas and toothpicks. Bucky’s “Synergetics” is around 40 years old but that knowledge (including my icon-sake of tensegrity) is only known in a few technical specialities (like cellular biology).

    I’m grateful for things like Apple’s iBooks. This eBook format currently runs on iPads; it will run on the new version of MacOS later this fall. iBooks includes built-in code for rendering and manipulating 3D objects. This is not the same as a real physical object, but it’s far better than the flat rendering of most books and eBooks. Mathematica also has built-in code for doing this kind of 3D rendering. Mathematica content that’s packaged in CDF files (see http://demonstrations.wolfram.com/) can be freely played on any PC (and, in the future, tablet computers). I can’t wait for science papers to start using CDF files (or similar tech) to help express and visualize concepts.

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    Columbus Ohio is a great city that is making large strides to make sure many K12 students are obtain a competitive advantage. Tutoring company http://www.bucktimetutoring.com

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  • Old School

    The easiest way to improve spatial reasoning is to add art to the elementary school schedule 2 times per week. It has been shoved too the back burner in favor of language based areas. When when I hear elementary children cheer because they will have to miss their foreign language instruction for the day I am saddened. Saddened that they feel this way, saddened that their day is so out of balance with their developmental needs, and saddenned that the decision makers are not interested in this basic observation. Reading, writing, science and social studies are all taught as language based subjects. The easiest way to improve them is by providing the time in art class to develop spatial reasoning and physical experiences with various mediums such as paint, clay, color…

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  • belgand

    While spatial reasoning can be important focusing on either spatial or verbal skills alone isn’t the ideal answer. What we need to do is encourage kids and testing to focus more heavily on analysis and less on memorization/recall. Rote learning only gives the outward appearance of knowing things and as time has gone on it has become easier and easier to find the things you want to know quickly and easily. The important thing is what you do that information.

    Instead we should teach kids solid research skills to enable them to find the information they need and then work on what they’re doing with that information. Synthesize it to draw reasonable conclusions, logical thinking, testing/problem solving; all of these are much more important and apply directly to almost every area of endeavor.

  • Aristotle

    What is the probability that someone with a great ability for spatial intelligence has a poor ability of math? The majority of math subjects after algebra get extensively easier if you can picture the shapes and algebra in your head. High school trigonometry, calculus, and geometry all require a good knowledge of 2 dimensional space. If a student is good at imagining things in 3 dimensions, I think it would end up being correlated to success in math.

    • Richies mom

      My son has always scored off the charts in math and science. He’s now in precalculous sa sophomore in high school. As a toddler he would see numbers in every day objects, a shoe turned on its toe end was a seven or two street signs close together became an eleven. When he does his math homework he’s very quiet, often staring into space. Thank you for reminding me that he’s visualizing the math in his mind.

  • bill

    I make my living, such as it is, on creativity, spit and a little shoe
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    Of course, by discussing the “value” of “creativity,” I’m making the bold assumption that creativity has value. I’d
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  • Joe Prior

    Why aren’t engineering and mathematicians adored, loved, and celebritized? Because they’re not really sexy. And that’s fine. They do what they do, but it’s not advertiseable or easily credible– because it is complex and hard to understand, part of the process is hidden and people can only appreciate the result. And people do appreciate it! But mathematicians and engineers work together on projects that are sold under a brand or without mention of who came together to make them… think about Apple. So much praise and excitement can be found on forums for their advanced or at least seemingly user-friendly technology, but they’re not listing names and turning individuals into celebrities for inventing the antenna or the new touch screen.

  • deanna

    I think the schools just do not know what to do with children with strong spatial skills. They just tested my oldest child for the gifted program. His IQ was not high enough for their gifted program but his spatial skills were off the chart. They say they are not quite sure what to do for him but they want to find a way to challenge him. They told me he just has a very different way of learning. He is a year a head of where he should be based on his age. currently he is in 5th grade and tests at 7th grade level for reading and 6th grade for math. Despite his spatial abilities he has always disliked art and even music class. Next year when he goes to middle school we are really hoping they have a STEM club he can join so he can really use his natural ability. He absolutely loves Math and Science. I really think he will be a wonderful engineer or something along those lines one day.

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  • Celi Trépanier

    “Today talent searches often use the SAT and ACT which include math, verbal, and writing sections, but do not include a spatial measure.” Yes. Unfortunately, many gifted programs, talent searches and summer programs for gifted students rely on achievement-type tests for entrance which does leave out many of our strong and creative visual-spatial learners. My own 15 year old has been affected by this. He is a highly gifted, visual-spatial learner who has a patent-pending dog shelter design and mastered a difficult CAD program, CREO, in just 6 weeks, yet his ACT scores are not quite high enough for entrance into many of these programs he could benefit from. Thank you for bringing to light an issue which deserves serious consideration!

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