In the late 1970s, the psychologists Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski identified a highly talented group of 563 13-year-olds; all of them scored in the top one-half of one percent on the SAT. This study is known as the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY). These teenagers were given a broad range of psychometric tests, and one of those was a test of spatial ability. Benbow and Lubinski have stayed in touch with these highly talented individuals, who are now in their late 40s, to see which of the tests–given to the teenagers–could predict various adult life outcomes.
In a recent scientific article*, Benbow and Lubinski, along with two other Vanderbilt University researchers, looked at the creativity of these 40-something adults. They classified the person as creative if they had obtained a patent, or if they had published a refereed journal article. The journal article publishers were grouped into three categories: arts humanities and social sciences; biology and medicine; and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
Those who published journal articles scored better than the other 13-year-olds on the SAT verbal measure; those who had patents scored below the group’s average SAT verbal.
Those who published in the arts and humanities had scored below the 13-year-old average on SAT math measures; the other published authors, and the patent holders, scored higher than the group’s average on SAT math.
And here’s the really interesting finding: Overall, the SAT math and verbal scores accounted for 10.8 percent of the variance in adult creativity. When spatial ability was added to the mix, it accounted for an additional 7.6% of the variance in adult creativity, above and beyond what the SAT score accounted for.
The take-home message is that spatial ability contributes to adult creativity, even after you take into account a relatively standard measure of human ability, the SAT. This means that standard measures of ability and intelligence might be missing some people with exceptional spatial ability, and those people seem to have elevated creative potential. The authors conclude:
Without spatial ability, the psychological architecture supporting creative thought and innovative production is incomplete.
Kell et al., 2013. Creativity and technical innovation: Spatial ability’s unique role. Psychological Science, 24(9), 1831-1836.