What Is Spatial Visualization?
Spatial visualization refers to the ability to think in three dimensions and more specifically, to mentally maneuver two- and three-dimensional objects. A variety of professions use it but can also be a necessary skill for daily life. If you have ever used a map to get somewhere, played with Legos, or organized items in a drawer, you have likely used spatial visualization. But what exactly is it, and what can we do to take advantage of it in different areas of our lives?
All About Spatial Visualization
Everyone can have their own unique strengths. Some people may be gifted athletes, while others can sight-read music. Maybe you are particularly skilled at trigonometry, or comforting your friends, or telling stories. Whatever the case may be, these strengths can tell us a lot about ourselves and the way we function best.
Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist, referred to these strengths as different forms of intelligence. Gardner believed that the ways that people think and interact could be separated into nine official categories.
These categories range from musical ability to logical or spatial ability, and they encompass most of the talents that may people have.
Some of these skills can be fairly easy to understand. If someone is especially skilled at dancing, for instance, it makes sense to believe they may have heightened bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.
Others, however, may be more difficult to discern. For instance, visual-spatial intelligence often confuses people with its apparent broadness. However, like the other intelligence proposed by Gardner, visual-spatial intelligence often translates into a variety of day-to-day skills. One of these is spatial visualization.
Careers That May Use Spatial Visualization
Engineers are possibly one of the most notable examples of professionals who may use spatial visualization every day. Some schools even require students to take a spatial visualization assessment before enrolling in an engineering program. Similarly, many engineering programs include seminars that can help students enhance their spatial visualization skills.
Engineering can be broken down into a whole host of sub-disciplines. However, being an engineer is, at its core, typically about designing, developing, and improving products. Civil engineers might design tunnels or bridges, while mechanical engineers develop machines and appliances.
Engineers have to consider how to turn their two-dimensional design into a three-dimensional object, so spatial visualization can be crucial.
Although spatial visualization is often paired with science and math, other professions also use spatial visualization. For example, artists and graphic designers might use the same spatial visualization skills that engineers rely on to plan projects and put them into action.
When creating art, artists might use spatial visualization to determine how three-dimensional objects should look next to each other. What size something is, what it looks like from a specific angle, and how it should look in comparison to the things around can all draw on spatial visualization skills.
Other professionals that may use spatial visualization daily include architects, geologists, surgeons, and photographers, among other examples.
Everyday Uses Of Spatial Visualization
Even if you are not employed in one of these careers, you probably use spatial visualization every day.
Many of us, for example, have purchased flat-pack furniture. Available in the box and ready to assemble, flat-pack furniture often comes with picture-heavy directions to help you build your brand new piece of furniture.
Building your furniture may seem complicated. However, aside from those tiny, easy-to-lose wrenches, the only tool you need to succeed may be spatial visualization.
Much like putting together furniture, many activities that involve following directions require spatial visualization. For example, using a map can be considered a spatial activity. You have to look at the map and determine how that two-dimensional image applies to your physical environment.
Sewing something from a pattern may also use this skill. To sew a shirt, for instance, you might have to look at a drawing of a clothing item and think about how to bring that drawing to life. Likewise, making the garment the right size can require good spatial visualization skills.
The same goes for organizing groceries in a car's trunk, packing a suitcase, or putting things away in a closet. Spatial visualization can help us visualize things mentally and then execute the best way of organizing these items.
How Is Spatial Visualization Assessed?
Because spatial visualization can be necessary in both the workplace and the larger world, psychologists have created tests to assess this skill. Sometimes completed in schools, universities, or workplaces, these tests may show how developed your spatial abilities are.
Universities (particularly engineering programs) often have their own unique spatial visualization tests. These tests are designed to test students' readiness to enter their specific program. Typically, the university suggests that students with lower scores should enroll in a spatial visualization course.
Other assessments include:
Mental Rotation Test - This type of assessment often presents the test-taker with several shapes. One of the shapes is designated as the goal. Participants must then choose which shape could be rotated to match the goal shape. In digital tests, the test-taker may need to rotate the shape to match the goal.
Mental Cutting Test - The Mental Cutting Test presents the participant with an object. The object is then "cut." The participant must decide which of the provided options would match the shape if cut.
The Form Board Test - The Form Board Test works similarly to a tangram puzzle. Participants use smaller shapes to fill a larger given shape correctly.
The Surface Development Test - For the Surface Development Test, test-takers determine how a flat shape might match up to a three-dimensional shape by identifying corresponding sides. A common form of this involves a cube, although more challenging shapes are often used.
The Paper Folding Test - This test requires participants to match a folded piece of paper with holes punched in it to an unfolded piece of paper. To succeed, participants must mentally manipulate the piece of paper.
Improving Spatial Visualization Skills
If you do not feel particularly skilled at spatial visualization, you are likely not alone. Although some people may be naturally better at spatial visualization, anyone can improve this skill. Howard Gardner stressed that different bits of intelligence can always be learned, developed, or improved.
There are many ways that you can develop your spatial abilities. Luckily, these methods are typically enjoyable activities, like games or hobbies, that many of us already do daily.
Parents often wish that their children would play fewer video games, but video games can improve spatial visualization skills. Studies have found that action video games, in particular, can help people improve their spatial abilities.
Because video games involve moving through three-dimensional environments or manipulating three-dimensional objects, they can serve as a great training ground for spatial visualization skills. However, even a less developed video game, like Tetris, can have a profound impact on a person's spatial abilities.
Artistic hobbies, like drawing, sculpting, or origami, can also hone a person's spatial awareness. Much like a professional artist will use spatial visualization, you too can practice thinking about two- and three-dimensional objects while drawing. Sculpting or making miniature models can also be effective.
Playing chess or putting together puzzles may also be ideal for enhancing your spatial visualization skills. Tangrams, which are puzzles that use the same seven shapes to form pictures, can involve your spatial abilities, too.
Other Ways To Pursue Self-Improvement
Many people find spatial visualization very difficult to do. Switching between two- and three-dimensional objects and then maneuvering those objects can require mental discipline.
Similarly, seeking mental health care can seem just as daunting and require just as much deliberate mental effort. Like improving your spatial abilities, however, it is likely a worthwhile pursuit. Even if mental health care seems out of reach, there may still be a way to seek professional help for your concerns.
Professional help can come in the form of online therapy. This form of treatment can be beneficial if you are looking for ways to improve your spatial visualization, address mental health concerns, or enhance your quality of life through self-improvement and self-care. It can also save you time and money that you might otherwise dedicate to commuting, childcare, and other expenses that can come with in-person appointments.
Research suggests that online therapy can be just as effective as in-person therapy when it comes to reducing unwanted mental health symptoms and improving the general quality of life for most individuals. The right therapist can provide guidance and advice for setting goals or finding the right resources for your life, including things like boosting your spatial visualization skills.
Read below for a few testimonials from people who have reached out to BetterHelp with similar concerns:
“Mr. Cadavero has helped me focus on short-term goals which require daily action, such as walking and playing piano. Being accountable to someone other than myself is energizing. I have decided to do another month of conversation.”
“Although we have only started our sessions, Ramona has great intuition and seemed to understand me very quickly. Her suggestions and consistent attention is appreciated. I look forward to this journey and feel that she is going to help me achieve my personal goals towards mental, physical, and spiritual growth.”
Spatial visualization is an incredibly useful and versatile skills that many of us rely on without even realizing it. No matter where your spatial visualization capabilities may fall, there are lots of ways to train this mental muscle so that you can take advantage of it in multiple parts of life.
- Previous Article
- Next Article