What Is Spatial Visualization?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Spatial visualization refers to the ability to think in three dimensions and mentally maneuver two or three-dimensional images. Professionals may use this skill, but it can also be used in daily life. You may have used spatial visualization if you have used a map to get somewhere, played with Legos, or organized items in a drawer. To understand this skill further, looking at what it means, how to use it, and what it means when you struggle to visualize can be helpful. 

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All about spatial visualization

People have unique strengths. Some people may be gifted athletes, while others can sight-read music. Maybe you are particularly skilled at trigonometry, comforting your friends, or telling stories. Your skills can give insights into personality. 

Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist, referred to these strengths as different forms of intelligence. Gardner believed that how people think and interact could be separated into nine official categories. These categories range from musical to logical or spatial ability and encompass people's talents and interests. 

For instance, if someone is skilled at dancing, it may make sense to believe they have heightened bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Others, however, may be more difficult to discern. For instance, visual-spatial intelligence often confuses people. However, like the other intelligence proposed by Gardner, visual-spatial intelligence translates various day-to-day skills. One of these is spatial visualization.

Careers that may use spatial visualization

Engineers are one example of professionals who may use spatial visualization every day. Some schools require students to take a spatial visualization assessment before enrolling in an engineering program. Similarly, some engineering programs include seminars to help students enhance their spatial visualization skills.

Engineering can be broken down into several sub-disciplines. However, on a basic level, engineering is about designing, developing, and improving products. Civil engineers might design tunnels or bridges, while mechanical engineers develop machines and appliances. Engineers 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 engineers rely on to plan projects and implement them.

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 compared to environmental stimuli can all draw on spatial visualization skills. Other professionals who may use spatial visualization daily include architects, geologists, surgeons, and photographers, among others. 

Everyday uses of spatial visualization

People can use spatial visualization outside of a professional setting, as well. For example, you might use this skill when buying build-it-yourself furniture. Available in the box and ready to assemble, flat-pack furniture often comes with picture-heavy directions. Building your furniture may seem complicated. However, aside from the little wrenches that may come in the package, spatial visualization is the primary tool you can use to complete your furniture. 

Like putting together furniture, following directions often requires spatial visualization. For example, using a map can be considered a spatial activity. You must look at the map and determine how the two-dimensional image applies to your physical environment.

Sewing clothing from a pattern may also use this skill. To sew a shirt, for instance, you might look at a drawing of a clothing item and think about how to bring that drawing to life. Likewise, making the garment the correct size can require spatial visualization skills.

Another example of spatial organization is organizing groceries in a car's trunk, packing a suitcase, or putting away clothes in a closet. Spatial visualization can allow you to visualize tasks mentally to make them a reality. 


How is spatial visualization assessed?

Because spatial visualization can be necessary in the workplace and daily life, 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 look at students' readiness to enter their specific program. In some cases, the university may suggest that students with lower scores enroll in a spatial visualization course. Below are a few courses that might be used. 

Mental rotation test

A mental rotation test 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

Test-takers determine how a flat shape might match a three-dimensional shape by identifying corresponding sides in the surface development test. A common form of this involves a cube, although more challenging shapes are often used.

The paper folding test

The paper folding test requires participants to match a folded piece of paper with holes to an unfolded piece of paper. To succeed, participants must mentally manipulate the piece of paper.

Improving spatial visualization skills

If you are not skilled at spatial visualization, you're not alone. Although some people may be naturally better at spatial visualization, anyone can improve this skill. Howard Gardner stressed that different types of intelligence can be learned, developed, or improved, and there are many ways to start. 

One way to learn spatial visualization is through methods that are often enjoyable activities, like games or hobbies, that some people already partake in. According to researchers, 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 training ground for spatial visualization skills. However, a less-developed video game, like Tetris, can also profoundly impact a person's spatial abilities.

Artistic hobbies, like drawing, sculpting, or origami, can also hone a person's spatial awareness. Like a professional artist may use spatial visualization, you 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 enhance your spatial visualization skills. Tangrams, puzzles that use the same seven shapes to form pictures, can also involve your spatial abilities. 

Want to enhance your spatial visualization skills?

Other ways to pursue self-improvement

Some people find spatial visualization extremely difficult. Switching between two and three-dimensional objects and then maneuvering those objects can require mental discipline. Similarly, seeking mental health care can seem daunting and require mental effort. Like improving your spatial abilities, however, you may benefit from speaking to a mental health professional about spatial awareness and other mental tasks. 

Even if mental healthcare seems out of reach, you may be able to seek professional support for your concerns through online platforms like BetterHelp. Online forms of treatment can be beneficial if you seek 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 as effective as in-person therapy in reducing unwanted mental health symptoms and improving quality of life. An online therapist can provide guidance and advice for setting goals or finding the right resources for your life, including ways to boost your spatial visualization skills.


Spatial visualization can be a valuable and versatile skill for people in professional or personal settings. However, no matter where your spatial visualization capabilities may fall, there are ways to train this mental muscle to take advantage of it in multiple parts of life.
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