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What is Spatial Ability?

By Tara Barnett
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Spatial ability is a category of reasoning skills that refers to the capacity to think about objects in three dimensions and to draw conclusions about those objects from limited information. For example, a person with good spatial reasoning skills might be particularly quick to finish a tangram puzzle, a game in which smaller shapes must combine to form a larger shape. Someone with good spatial abilities might also be good at thinking about how an object will look when rotated. These skills are valuable in many real-world situations and can be improved with practice.

This ability is thought to develop when children explore their respective environments and gain experiences with how objects look from different perspectives. Some people who are otherwise intelligent and adept with reasoning skills never develop spatial abilities to the same degree as other skills, and the reverse is also true. Sometimes, a person is skilled in some areas of spatial reasoning but not others, and so the category can be further subdivided to address these types.

Men, on average, are thought to score better on assessments of spatial ability than women. This is sometimes said to be a biological difference, but there is also evidence that it is a result of practice in seeing the world a certain way. The ability is also thought to decrease with age, although almost anyone can improve his or her spatial abilities with practice, and there are many games meant to exercise exactly these skills.

Many tests of spatial ability have been developed, as well as mental exercises meant to improve these reasoning skills. Some tests take the form of tangrams, involving arranging shapes within a larger shape. Another involves comparing a three-dimensional object to a flat rendition of that object, which would form that three-dimensional object when folded, and seeing how quickly a person can match the sides of both objects.

One problem with these tests is that they are only apt assessments of overall spatial abilities when the tests themselves have not been practiced. When the tests turn into games, then that aspect of spatial ability is being exercised, but not others. Even then, a person might have difficulty with tangrams but be skilled in visualizing how objects look when rotated.

Even if a person tests poorly, this typically does not prevent him or her from becoming involved in activities that require excellent spatial abilities. For instance, the skills involved in being an architect may come more easily to someone with pre-existing visualization skills, but an intelligent person can still learn these skills and exercise them on the job. The ability to think about objects this way is primarily an intellectual and analytical construct and has little utility in determining a person's potential prowess in a field.

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Discussion Comments

By anon334599 — On May 14, 2013

I got straight A's in college calculus, but flunked computer programming. Why?

By accordion — On Apr 20, 2011

Some parts of math really require spatial ability, while others don't. I did terribly at geometry because I can't think spatially, but did really well in algebra, which used very different skills.

By aaaCookie — On Apr 19, 2011

I never developed good spatial ability. I wonder if this is because I mostly read and played video games as a child? It would be interesting to see if children who did specific kinds of activities, like sports or playing instruments, developed significantly better spatial reasoning than students who spent most of their time with their nose in a book, like I did.

By MsMay — On Apr 11, 2011

If spatial ability is developed with practice, then parents should play spatial games with their children at an early age, especially female children. I am sure that they will benefit in mathematics from 4th grade through high school geometry. Whenever figures are introduced there are exercises that require translating and transforming them into other structures. This skill can be mastered if children have early exposure.

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