Spatial Ability Plays Major Role in Creativity and Technical Innovation / by Steve Yohanan

Image credit: Steve Yohanan

Image credit: Steve Yohanan


Nature recently posted an article entitled How to Raise a Genius: Lessons from a 45-Year Study of Super-Smart Children.  The article profiles Johns Hopkins professor of Psychology Dr. Julian Stanley and outlines the history and outcomes of his longitudinal studies from The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY).

SMPY began in 1971 and continues today, currently at the Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.  The research's general premise was to examine gifted children vis-a-vis their unique educational needs; "gifted" being defined as a child scoring above 700 (out of 800) on the SAT by the age of 13.  An extensive summary of SMPY research is detailed in Lubinski & Benbow, 2006.

The Nature article highlighted several findings of Stanley's research, two of which I found particularly interesting.  The first was in contradiction to professor of Psychology Dr. K. Anders Ericsson's research into expert performance, namely through deliberate practice.

Such results contradict long-established ideas suggesting that expert performance is built mainly through practice — that anyone can get to the top with enough focused effort of the right kind. SMPY, by contrast, suggests that early cognitive ability has more effect on achievement than either deliberate practice or environmental factors such as socio-economic status.

The second interesting result weighed innate math and verbal ability against spatial ability, finding that the latter was majority factor in creative thinking and technical innovation.

The findings, which dovetail with those of other recent studies, suggest that spatial ability plays a major part in creativity and technical innovation. “I think it may be the largest known untapped source of human potential,” says Lubinski, who adds that students who are only marginally impressive in mathematics or verbal ability but high in spatial ability often make exceptional engineers, architects and surgeons. “And yet, no admissions directors I know of are looking at this, and it’s generally overlooked in school-based assessments.”