The Benefits of Spatial Thinking

June 18, 2012

by Robin Tricoles 

The humble building block, the staple of children’s toys, has led more than one toddler to a career in science, engineering, or architecture. At the very least, the block has lent itself to children’s awareness and understanding of spatial matters, what psychologists refer to as spatial thinking.

Spatial thinking, the way we navigate the world and manipulate the space around us, is crucial to problem solving, whether it’s routine activities such as parallel parking or more esoteric activities such as designing a building or reading an X-ray. For children and teenagers, developing spatial thinking can determine the course of their career and perhaps their life. And for the elderly, it can mean the difference between mental clarity and cognitive decline. 

“Spatial thinking is useful in everyday life but also useful in science and math,” says Nora Newcombe, an expert in cognitive development. “It launches children on a good trajectory. But it can also be improved in adults; so, if someone gets interested in engineering, say, in late high school, they needn’t say, ‘I could never do that’. Instead, they can change course.”

For example, engineering can begin with block play in toddlers and then progress from there. “The toddler has to think about what makes a block structure stable,” says Newcombe. “Kids often try to build things as high as they can, and they often fall over. So, then they have to ask why is that. And how do you give it a firmer base? And how do you buttress it? That’s baby engineering.” 

One kind of spatial thinking that holds a particular interest for scientists is mental rotation, imagining what something would look like as you move it and the vantage point changes. 

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“Mental rotation is a much-studied aspect of spatial thinking,” says Newcombe. In fact, it has been shown to relate to spatial and mathematical development.“ So, instead of math being just another topic taught in school, the subject takes on a whole new significance. Not only because math undergirds science, but because science is often about highly spatial topics, like the twisting of DNA molecules.”

Or the formation of rocks. Geologists study rock formations in the here and now and from limited angles and depths. That’s why it’s crucial they be able to visualize what they can’t see or touch. Doing so allows them to deduce what may have happened millions of years ago the led the formations to look they way they do now. Without spatial thinking, such analysis would be impossible. 

And so would understanding topographic maps, an important tool used by earth scientists, backpackers, geographers, and others. “Geographers tend to be highly spatial people, and one of the things they insist on knowing, especially when they’re in an unfamiliar place, is where north is,” says Newcombe, who often collaborates with geographers on spatial cognition. “They’ll take out their compass, and once they find out which way north is, they’re okay. It’s a really important part of their lives.”

So important that professors and researchers are pushing to make sure students learn early on how to read topographic maps, a skill that in recent years has been lacking.

“When a student or researcher goes on a field trip, they need to know what sort of feature they’re looking at,” explains Newcombe. “That’s so you can look up, look around you, and know what you’re seeing. A big message in modern research is that even if you’re spatially challenged, you still can learn. There’s a lot of plasticity left. You can get better, but you have to challenge yourself.”

So, next time you’re trying to find your way around town, stay active, think directionally, and don’t rely on the nice lady on your GPS, says Newcombe. “The minute you become passive you’re not going to learn.”


Nora S. Newcombe, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at Temple University and principal investigator of the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center (SILC), headquartered at Temple. SILC is composed of four primary universities, Temple, Northwestern University, The University of Chicago, and The Pennsylvania State University. Newcombe’s research focuses on spatial development and cognition. To learn more about her research, please visit her faculty page.

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