Spatial Ability and Creativity

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.

14 thoughts on “Spatial Ability and Creativity

    1. Yes, that is one of the implications, that if schools omit spatial reasoning then they may be missing an opportunity to educate for more creative graduates. It reminds me of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, and also of the important role of MAKING and PROTOTYPTING in design thinking.

  1. Even with spatial reasoning, the SAT plus spatial reasoning model of creativity is incomplete — unless you are prepared to say that the development of creativity is 83 percent random beyond this little model. This model seems under specified.

    1. I completely agree. I don’t think we have a fully specified model of creativity, James you would probably agree. One thing I learned recently from the evolutionary biologists: Any genetically based trait that confers a selection advantage (during evolutionary time) would be selected for such that everyone who did NOT have the gene basis would die off. This is why the traits that differentiate humans today are, evolutionarily speaking, very subtle–we are all in a fairly narrow band of ability and performance. (Compared to Neanderthals, for example.) And the variations that exist within the normal human range CANNOT be simply or trivially genetically based (again, because if they were, that gene would have been selected for IN EVERYONE–evolution is really good at doing that). So traits that differentiate us, like IQ and creativity and everything else, HAVE to be based in a complicated way in the genome–many different genes involved, interactions among them, neonatal developmental influences, et cetera. That’s why there IS NO GENE FOR CREATIVITY (and not for IQ, either); evolutionary theory shows that there simply CANNOT be such a gene. A complex human ability like Creativity has to be very complex, and realized in the genome (and the brain) in complicated, non-obvious ways. To get back to James’ comment: I guess I am saying that EVERY model of creativity will ALWAYS be under specified and incomplete. (Or else, perhaps, too unwieldy and complex to be of use.)

    1. What would you propose as the criterion? I think these are as good as anything else we have. I support their choice to measure demonstrated creative performance, instead of some abstract notion of a “creative personality”…

      1. I think they are as good as anything we have but limit the field to those that choose academia or research. To be honest, if we are failing to stream highly creative people into academia or patentable research and they end up as artists, entrepreneurs or in other creative fields that don’t publish or patent then the issue seems to be a non-issue. If we are failing to recognize creative potential and it is being wasted, then that is a much bigger issue This has nothing to do with ‘creative personalities’ and everything to do with ‘creation’ that lacks formal validation. I place a lower value on patents and journals than on new systems, artistic works or enterprises so the criterion offers little reason for concern.

      2. Think of it this way. If you wanted to identify highly creative individuals among all college freshmen in the USA, publications and patents would get you nowhere. Criteria for creativeness are mostly context-based. If we seek the most generally creative in a group or population, we need measures of behavior and other evidence that map onto general creative thinking or innovation.

      3. It has proven to be incredibly difficult to assess creativity in college freshmen (or applicants to college). Bob Sternberg tried really hard when he was Dean at Tufts, he developed a completely new admissions process in an attempt to add a creativity measure. He himself has said that this effort failed and that he now does not believe that general creative ability can be assessed, with discriminant validity with other measures of ability (e.g. SAT scores). I’m not sure what to do about this; but at present we don’t have a way “to identify highly creative individuals among all college freshmen.”

      4. I’m not particularly interested in college freshmen, at least in measuring their creativity. But a traditional paper and pencil, forced-choice test would surely not suffice. A creativity assessment would need to have students engage in actual creative tasks that were then evaluated and “scored” by human beings. And not simply asked if they get new ideas easily and so on. External validation would then be required. This might be facilitated, at least in elementary schools, by the teachers of the students who have good knowledge of these kids. They could rate and rank students on creative thinking and motivation, using guidelines or rubrics aligned with the creative tasks assessment — and these ratings then compared to the creative tasks assessment. This would not be a tight process, but would suggest validity of the measure, or its lack. A start anyway. An analogue for college freshman does not come readily to mind because college instructors do not typically know large numbers of students and many know few or no students well. Few engage in this business, because human raters are expensive to hire and train to a reasonable degree of reliability, some doubt that raters would never agree enough to generate reliable “scores,” and there has been little demand for standard creativity measures, certainly in comparison to language and mathematics measures.

  2. Well, let’s see. Thelonius Monk secured how many patents? Published how many peer-reviewed academic articles?

    Certainly, there is a bias built into the fact that academic researchers – even the creative ones – tend to work “inside the box.” Quantifiable numeric results such as publications and patents fit well within that box, whereas Monk, Hancock, and Duke work in a space that most academic researchers simply do not understand, let alone have the wherewithal to translate into terms those within the box could appreciate.

    1. As you may know, Thelonius Monk is one of my favorite jazz pianists. Your point suggests that the researchers’ finding is then even more significant, because they probably have missed some creative adults. But that is actually good news for the research team, right?

      But to your bigger point: I don’t agree that the success of a jazz musician, like Monk, cannot be assessed objectively. You can measure how many albums were sold, or how many times he was mentioned in Downbeat magazine, or how many pages in jazz history books are devoted to him. Of course such measures will never capture your own subjective experience of listening…but I don’t agree with your statement that “academic researchers do not understand” such creativity. There are different forms of understanding, each equally valid for different purposes.

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