Thinking About Spatial Thinking: New Typology, New Assessments

  • Nora S. Newcombe
  • Thomas F. Shipley
Conference paper


Our world is a world that exists in space, and a world without space is literally inconceivable. Given this basic truth, it is clear that living in the world requires spatial functioning of some kind. Being creative in this world, and designing new tools and new habitats, probably requires even higher levels of spatial functioning. And people vary in their levels of spatial ability. What do these facts mean for the field of design? There are certain obvious practical questions. For example, should design schools accept only applicants who test high in spatial ability, following the lead of dental schools, which assess spatial thought on the Dental Admissions Test or with practical exercises in assignments such as tooth modeling? Or should design schools strive to enhance the spatial ability of anyone with the desire to do creative design, following the lead of selection committees for surgical residencies, which do not assess spatial ability in any way? The latter course is arguably supported by evidence (to be discussed later) showing that spatial skill is malleable. As another example of a practical question for design, consider what designers should or could know about the potential users of a product. What kinds and levels of spatial abilities should they assume that users will have? How would they be able to predict when a new tool will be too hard to master for many users, or when a building design will result in an environment in which many people easily get lost?


Mental Rotation Spatial Ability Perspective Taking Spatial Functioning Spatial Skill 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. 1.
    Balcomb F, Newcombe NS, Ferrara K (2009) Convergence and divergence in representational systems: place learning and language in toddlers. In Taatgen N et al (eds) Proceedings of the 31st Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society, pp 596–601Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Boyer TW, Levine SC (under review) Child proportional scaling: is 1/3 = 2/6 = 3/9 = 4/12?Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Boyer T, Levine SC, Huttenlocher J (2008) Development of proportional reasoning: where young children go wrong. Dev Psychol 44:1478–1490CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Carroll J (1993) Human cognitive abilities: a survey of factoranalytic studies. Cambridge University, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Chatterjee A (2008) The neural organization of spatial thought and language. Semin Speech Lang 29:226–238CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Fisher K, Nash B, Hirsh-Pasek K, Newcombe N, Golinkoff R (2009) Breaking the mold: altering preschoolers’ concepts of geometric shapes. Poster presented at the Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting, Denver, Colorado (April, 2009)Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Forbus K, Nielsen P, Faltings B (1991) Qualitative spatial reasoning: the clock project. Artif Intell 51(1–3):417–471Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Freksa C, Barkowsky T, Klippel A (1999) Spatial symbol systems and spatial cognition: a computer science perspective on perception-based symbol processing. Behav Brain Sci 22:616–617CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Frick A, Newcombe NS (in prep.) Development of spatial scaling abilities. Manuscript in preparationGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Gentner D, Lovett A, Smith L (in preparation) Tests of children’s analogical abilityGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Harris J, Newcombe N (2010) Measuring spatial visualization through folding. Poster session presented at the inter-Science of Learning Center Student and Post-doc Conference, BostonGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Heckman JJ (2006) Skill formation and the economics of investing in disadvantaged children. Science 312:1900–1902CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Hegarty M, Waller DA (2005) Individual differences in spatial abilities. In: Shah P, Miyake A (eds) The Cambridge handbook of visuospatial thinking. Cambridge University, New York, pp 121–169CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Hegarty M, Crookes RD, Dara-Abrams D, Shipley TF (in press) Do all science disciplines rely on spatial abilities? Preliminary evidence from self-report questionnaires. To appear in Christian Freksa and Nora S. Newcombe (eds) Spatial Cognition V. Learning, Reasoning, and Talking 5 about Space, International Conference Spatial Cognition 2010, Portland, USA. Proceedings Lecture Notes in Computer Science SpringerGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Hegarty M, Montello DR, Richardson AE, Ishikawa T, Lovelace K (2006) Spatial abilities at different scales: individual differences in aptitude-test performance and spatial-layout learning. Intelligence 34:151–176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Holden M, Curby K, Newcombe NS, Shipley TF (in press) A category adjustment approach to memory for spatial location in natural scenes. J Exp Psychol: Learn, Mem CognGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Huttenlocher J, Presson CC (1973) Mental rotation and the perspective problem. Cogn Psychol 4:277–299CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Huttenlocher J, Hedges LV, Vevea JL (2000) Why do categories affect stimulus judgment? J Exp Psychol Gen 129:1–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Ishikawa T, Montello DR (2006) Spatial knowledge acquisition from direct experience in the environment: individual differences in the development of metric knowledge and the integration of separately learned places. Cogn Psychol 52:93–129CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Kali Y, Orion N (1996) Spatial abilities of high-school students in the perception of geologic structures. J Res Sci Teach 33:369–391CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Kastens KA, Ishikawa T (2006) Spatial thinking in the geosciences and cognitive sciences: a cross-disciplinary look at the intersection of the two fields. In: Manduca CA, Mogk DW (eds) Earth and mind: how geologists think and learn about the Earth. Geological Society of America, Boulder, pp 53–76Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Kozhevnikov M, Hegarty M (2001) A dissociation between object-manipulation spatial ability and spatial orientation ability. Mem Cogn 29:745–756CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Kozhevnikov M, Hegarty M, Mayer RE (2002) Revising the visualizer-verbalizer dimension: evidence for two types of visualizers. Cogn Instr 20:47–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Kozhevnikov M, Kosslyn S, Shephard J (2005) Spatial versus object visualizers: a new characterization of visual cognitive style. Mem Cogn 33:710–726CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Kozhevnikov M, Motes M, Rasch B, Blajenkova O (2006) Perspective-taking vs. mental rotation transformations and how they predict spatial navigation performance. Appl Cogn Psychol 20:397–417CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Levine SC, Huttenlocher J, Taylor A, Langrock A (1999) Early sex differences in spatial skill. Dev Psychol 35:940–949CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Levine SC, Vasilyeva M, Lourenco SF, Newcombe NS, Huttenlocher J (2005) Socio-economic status modifies the sex difference in spatial skills. Psychol Sci 16:841–845CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Linn MC, Peterson AC (1985) Emergence and characterization of sex differences in spatial ability: a meta-analysis. Child Dev 56:1479–1498CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    Loewenstein J, Gentner D (2001) Spatial mapping in preschoolers: close comparisons facilitate far mappings. J Cogn Dev 2:189–219CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Lourenco SF, Levine SC (2009) Location representation following early unilateral brain injury: Evidence of distinct deficits and degrees of plasticity. Paper presented at the Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting, Denver, Colorado (April, 2009)Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Palmer SE (1978) Fundamental aspects of cognitive representation. In: Rosch E, Lloyd BB (eds) Cognition and categorization. Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, pp 259–303Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Ratliff KR, McGinnis CR, Levine SC (2010) The development and assessment of cross-sectioning ability in young children. Paper submitted to the 32nd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Portland, OR (August, 2010)Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Schinazi VR, Epstein RA, Nardi D, Newcombe NS, Shipley TF (2009) The acquisition of spatial knowledge in an unfamiliar campus environment. Psychonomic Society. November 2009, BostonGoogle Scholar
  34. 34.
    Shipley T, Manduca C, Resnick I, Schilling C (2009) Expertise in spatial visualization: can geologists reverse time? Psychonomic Society, BostonGoogle Scholar
  35. 35.
    Uttal DH, Meadow N, Hand L, Lewis A, Warren C, Newcombe NS (under review) Spatial training: what works, for whom and for how long?Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Wai J, Lubinski D, Benbow CP (2009) Spatial ability for STEM domains: aligning over fifty years of cumulative psychological knowledge solidifies its importance. J Educ Psychol 101:817–835CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Temple UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA

Personalised recommendations