Spatial Ability: Can You See in 3D?

Einstein sailing

Spatial Ability: What it takes to be a maverick scientist

In Olympic running sports, it’s obvious that world-class sprinters and distance runners are born with different body types.  Sprinters have mesomorph or muscular upper bodies and strong legs that consist of 90% sprint muscle fiber for explosive speed at short distances. Distance runners are born with very lean ectomorph upper bodies and thin legs with over 90% endurance muscle fiber. You can’t change what you’re born with, but you can learn to use what you’ve got to realize the unique potential endowed to you through your natural talents. 

As in sports, there are specific innate aptitudes needed to do well in scientific and technology innovation fields.  If you have a knack for math and logical/analytical reasoning, you’ve probably dabbled in physics and chemistry classes to test your mathematical ‘athletic’ abilities. But there’s more to science than number crunching. Mathematical ability is important, but it’s only one of several important cognitive tools needed to excel in a physical science. Another key aptitude that some of us are innately strong in, but we may not recognize it; the ability to visualize and rotate 3-dimensional images in our mind’s eye.   

A fun way to test for how strong you are at 3D thinking is see how fast you can solve the Rubik’s cube. I have very little spatial talent, and like me, many people can’t solve the cube at all. I’ve met engineers who can do it in minutes, with their eyes closed. Actually, they mentally visualize all sides of the cube and can even dynamically rotate the different colored tiers, mentally simulating possibilities without touching the cube.  Spatial ability does its magic in your head; it doesn’t require ‘hands-on’ contact to engage it. Einstein used this same aptitude in his thought experiments. After his death, an autopsy of his brain showed that his spatial brain modules were physically 15% larger than average. Some people are lucky to be born with longer legs and sexy bodies; he came prepackaged with a brawny spatial brain. 

To really get the physical sciences, you need to be able to mentally see how physical objects like electrons, magnetic fields and molecules are shaped and interact in 3D space. Inventing new technologies also involves cognitive strengths in intuition (imagination), idea flow and diagnostic reasoning to take leaps out-of-the-box into new scientific territory. If you happen to have the combination of natural strengths for 3D spatial thinking, math, logicalthinking judgement, creativity and a fast moving imagination, you might find yourself instinctively drawn to solve the mysterious new technical challenges facing humanity in the domain of alternative energy and green technologies. If you significantly lower the 3D aptitude in the combo set of talents just described, and add in a dose of empathetic feeling judgement, you have the makings of a social or behavioral scientist. If you swap out the intuition with a more practical sensor mindset and lower the idea flow and diagnostic abilities, you now have the profile of a project engineer. The aptitude combinations are limitless. What kind of mind were you born with?

Our biological endowment of aptitudes is what drives our lifelong, sustaining interests. We tend to be interested in things that come easily, it literally feels fun to use our innate strengths. Interests that come and go typically don’t have strong roots in our brain wiring. Deciding which of your interests will bring you sustainable fulfillment and success over the long haul will get clearer once you know your brain’s unique profile of natural abilities.  

Spatial Ability and Career Testing Resources:

» See the article series on spatial ability to explore this innate talent further. 

» Take a professional career aptitude test to discover your natural talents.

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