What Is Spatial Visualization?
Updated February 13, 2020
Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault
Everyone has his or her unique strengths. Some people are gifted athletes, while others can sight-read music. You might know someone who can navigate through a forest without a map, or draw amazing likenesses of others. Maybe you are particularly skilled at trigonometry, or comforting your friends, or telling stories.
Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist, referred to these strengths as 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 ability to spatial ability, and they encompass most of the talents that people have.
Some of these skills are easy to understand. If someone is especially skilled at dancing, it makes sense that they have bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. The same goes for musical intelligence. It is easy to match singing or playing an instrument with this category of skills.
Others, however, are 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 translates into a variety of day-to-day skills. One of these is spatial visualization.
Again, this may seem confusing when compared to the ease of matching the musical ability to musical intelligence. However, if you have ever used a map to get somewhere, played with Legos, or organize items in a drawer, you have used spatial visualization. But what exactly is spatial visualization?
Spatial visualization is the ability to think in three dimensions and more specifically, to mentally maneuver two- and three-dimensional objects. A variety of professions uses it, but it is also necessary for daily life.
Professions That Use Spatial Visualization
Although almost everyone uses spatial visualization on a daily basis, certain careers prioritize this skill.
Engineers are possibly one of the most notable examples of professionals who use spatial visualization every day. Some colleges 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, about designing, developing, and improving some product. 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 is crucial.
Although spatial visualization is often paired with science and math, other professions also use spatial visualization. For example, artists and graphic designers use the same spatial visualization skills that engineers use.
When creating art, artists 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 all draw on spatial visualization skills.
Other professionals that use spatial visualization daily include architects, geologists, surgeons, and photographers.
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 is spatial visualization.
Spatial visualization is what takes those two-dimensional instructions and translates them into the three-dimensional object that you are trying to build.
Much like putting together furniture, many activities that involve following directions require spatial visualization. For example, using a map is 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 also uses this skill. To sew a shirt, you have to look at a drawing of a clothing item and think about how to bring that drawing to life. In particular, making the garment the right size requires 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 see in our head, and then execute, the best way of organizing these items.
How Is Spatial Visualization Assessed?
Because spatial visualization is 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 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, do not worry. Although some people are 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 so 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 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 are also ideal for enhancing your spatial visualization skills. Tangrams, which are puzzles that use the same seven shapes to form pictures, involve your spatial abilities, too.
Of course, you don't have to go out of your way to improve your spatial abilities. As you now know, many of us do things that involve spatial visualization every day. Whether you are following a map or loading your dishwasher, you are improving your spatial abilities, even if the task seems mundane.
Other Ways of 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 extreme mental discipline. However, you can only benefit from sharpening your spatial abilities.
Similarly, seeking mental health care can be just as daunting and require just as much mind control. Like improving your spatial abilities, however, it is just as worthwhile. If mental health care seems out of reach, there is still a way to seek professional help for your problems.
BetterHelp can set you up with affordable, convenient counseling that can give you the care you need. With over 1,500,000 registered users and 2,500 licensed counselors, BetterHelp is a service you can trust. With a variety of flexible, digital counseling options, BetterHelp is discrete and available on your time, which means that there is no reason to put off getting the help you need. Users of Better Help can communicate with their counselors by exchanging messages, instant messaging, talking on the phone, or through video conferencing.
Once you fill out a short questionnaire, BetterHelp can place you with a counselor that will be right for you and your needs. If you are tired of struggling, head over to BetterHelp today.