Monday, May 18, 2009

Spatial Thinkers - Not Visual and Not Verbal

Although learning styles experts often mention "visual-spatial"together, a closer look at many of these people reveals distinctions - some who are both visual and spatial, but also other who seem nearly exclusively spatial, but not visual or vice-versa.

Spatial thinkers are more common than most people think (in our clinic, this applies to many children of engineers, physicists, mathematicians, architects, and dyslexic kids in general), but though they may initially think of themselves as visual thinkers, when questioned carefully, they confess that their thinking is not actually pictoral. Rather, thought processing seems to involve space or kinesthetic / bodily sensations or associations. Ideas are located at different positions in space (or associated with the body), or bodily "feelings" give rise to intuitive leaps or non-verbal certainties.

From the Root-Bernstein's (Sparks of Genius): "...Neuroscientist and painter Jacques Mandelbrojt says that "an artist creates signs by an interior muscular identification with the object he wants to represent". Mandelbrojt: "When I painted outdoors I identified myself..either with the simple and pure shapes of trees or with the entangled shapes of bushes. My memory and muscles still retain these internal muscular identifications..."

From the engineer author Eugene Ferguson, writing about the knowledge necessary to make an large machine such as a steam turbine-drive electrical generator: "not only visual but also tactile and muscular knowledge are incorporated into the machine..."

"Such hands know how tight is tight, when one more turn will strip a screw or crack a nut. They know how far they can bend different woods and metals before they crack..." (Root-Bernsteins)

In the figure above, researchers from the University College London add more information to the literature on spatial thinking and expertise. Studying experienced taxi cab drivers, they found not only that the cabbies were better at estimating real distances between London landmarks, but that the expertise did not seem to generalize to spatial recall of visually-placed objects or a complex visual geometric figure.

It would have been interesting if the researchers had interviewed the taxi drivers in more detail. Did they recall distances as a feeling of distances in space or in relationship to the body? Did they use visual imagery to picture places on a map or perhaps recalled by rote memory the distances and fares of previous passengers, etc.

In our clinic, spatial thinkers often tell us it is hard to explain how they recall what they know, but it is not like a clearly detailed photograph. Often they gesture and their recall seems tied to positions or bodily senses which the Root-Bernsteins have referred to as "proprioceptive thinking."

Additional interesting findings in this study - the spatial experts had significantly lower scores on verbal fluency (the ease of generating words) and auditory word learning - other findings quite common among the strong spatial thinkers (and often dyslexic) we see in our clinic.

Spatial expertise, but weaker associative memory pdf
Spatial but not visual
Spatially Gifted, Verbally Inconvenienced pdf

1 comment:

  1. I've always had trouble with verbal vs. visual/spatial dichotomy, as my thinking doesn't seem to fit any of the descriptions. I'm certainly not a visual thinker, as I have a hard time visualizing anything---I can't remember people's faces or the sizes of things like pipes and screws.
    I have no trouble with verbal or spatial reasoning tests, but a lot of my thought is not possible for me to verbalize and doesn't seem to involve visual or kinesthetic components.

    It would be interesting to study gifted mathematicians and computer programmers (those programmers who are 100s of times more productive than average programmers), to see if there are any clues about how they think. I believe that some major modes of thought have been overlooked or ignored by researchers focussed on verbal, visual, and spatial modes.