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.*
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.
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.