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Visual & spatial thinking

Spatial & Visual Representations, Abilities, & Literacy

Is all animal learning visual and spatial?
Since they don't have words. Or do they?


Visualization is to form a mental image of something. Which can be pretty much anything sensed. So let's sort this out with some categories. Temple Grandin references:

  1. Object visualizers - focus on images of objects and their associations and less on the object's relationships. Object visualizers design. Excel as designers, architects, mechanics, artists, inventors
  2. Spatial visualizers - focus on relationships, patterns, functions. Visualizers make designs work. Excel as mathematicians, coders, composers, musicians, scientists, engineers
  3. Verbal thinkers - focus on words. Excel in school, literature, writing, do well on standardized tests

While these categories describe different ways of communicating these three types of information, the brain is always trying to make sense of information by connecting sensory information according to the structure of the brain and how it has structured past experiences. It may operate on them separately or combine visuals (object & spatial) with verbal and manipulate them spatially or logically.

A more recent study suggests visual imagery is sometimes like a language and sometimes like a picture and sometimes both. As simple as a diagram or detailed as a photograph. With no common visualization category created by each individual or created among different people.

Research in consciousness and cognition did visualization experiments.
In one scenario each subject is asked to visualize a person knocking a ball (primary object) off a table (secondary object). After visualizing, they were asked to describe specific properties of each objects in the scenario. For example, the person’s height, color of the ball, and the shape of the table. In another they were asked to imagine a piece of fruit being selected and placed into a basket.

The results! Most participants identified some properties. Suggesting visualizations are not completely descriptive. In the ball example, 78% of the participants did not report visualizing two of the nine properties they were asked to describe. These results exclude subjects with aphantasia, the condition where visualization is absent or impaired, which is about 4% of the population.

The participants were not aware that their mental images were missing detail. When asked yes no question about detailed properties of the scenario, most answered no. However, if asked open ended questions, most would describe them with detail. For example, clothing - color, style, cut, … This has been explained as on-demand embellishments made up on the fly. When asked for more detail, they probably thought - oh yeah! Then, filled in with a more complete explanation to satisfy the investigator.

What researchers have called - confabulation.

Confabulation is likely the process of visualizing an image or sequence of an event. The brain, trying to utilize as little energy as possible, will begin to construct the image as required to understand the situation, respond as required, and stop. The more effort you put into it, the more it will construct adding detail as necessary. If you don’t require more, the brain will not bother adding detail. Also referred to as non-commitment in cognition.

In the ball being knocked off the table example. Most subjects visualized the size and color of the ball as well as its trajectory, the person’s gender and the size and shape of the table. These results seem to show a preference for spatial properties: the location of the objects, the space they occupy, their movement, and so on over non spatial properties. While other properties seem to be determined by the context (horse - jeans and cowboy gear) with details added as requested. Suggesting a limit by energy availability which may or may not be associated with working memory and its limits.

Source Discover Magazine. Piece of Mind by Cody Cottier, May/June 2024.

Spatial thinking and representation is possible without visual representations. Non sighted people are capable of spatially representing objects and events, which sighted people probably do also, but because they are sighted, they often automatically connect spatial thinking to visual representations. One example of spatial thinking is when you reach into your pocket and identify the coins you want before pulling it out. Or identifying the recycle pick up from the sound of the container being dumped into the pick up truck.

The quality of a person's representation depends on the time a person takes to construct it. Construction, which is internal (mental) or external (physically in the environment) for both spatial and visual representations. As we draw a picture and take time to add detail to an external representation, so too are our internal constructions improved when time is spent noticing additional detail.

Historically internal and external representations have been described in three general categories:

  1. Concrete,
  2. Semi-concrete or iconic or pictorial, and
  3. Abstract or symbolic.

However, as represented below, there can be a continuum between these categories for many representations.

For example: a bowl can be spatially represented as half of a curved sphere with an opening into the curve. Spatially it can be rotated so the opening is on the top to hold something or on the bottom to dump out its contents.

This might be represented internally simply as opening on top, curve on bottom; or when inverted opening on bottom, curve on top.

To represent it visually, one could internally construct a mental picture of a bowl positioned as bowls are normally or inverted.

These visual representation may have details with properties such as color of the bowl and markings or represented by a simple u shaped curve. Depending on the time we take to construct the representation and the complexity of what we desire to represent.

For example, a face is most likely more complex than a bowl and can be represented with a greater range details. The following figure shows a continuum if this and also in relation to Bruner's three categories.

Concrete to abstract examples

In mathematics, concrete representations are shown with objects (counters, cubes, shapes, rods) and actions on those objects to represent mathematical operations. Semi-concrete or iconic representation are shown with drawings or pictures of concrete objects. And an abstract operation replaces concrete objects and semi-concrete representations with mathematical symbols and numbers to show mathematical operations, usually represented in mathematics as geometry.

Spatial thinking and representation begins early with infants well before any verbal communication and is the basis for:

Spatial visual thinking and related descriptions

  • Geometry is the study of spatial objects, relationships, and transformations that have been formalized and the axiomatic mathematical systems that have been constructed to represent them.
  • Gestures are external representations to help in communication.
  • Instructional Activities to Develop Visual Spatial Abilities
  • Spatial reasoning is the set of cognitive processes by which mental representations for spatial objects, relationships, and transformations are constructed and manipulated.
  • Visualization includes written text, images, symbols, scale diagrams, cutaway diagrams, cross-sections, flow charts, organizational charts, cycle charts, webs, hierarchical diagrams, dichotomous charts, network charts, bar graphs, circle graphs, line graphs, three-dimensional graphs, time lines, bird's eye view maps, context maps, altitude maps, tables, graphic designs.
  • Six Modes of Visual Learning
  • Spatial / visual representation is not created as if the mind is a video recorder storing images for future reference where perceptual snapshots can be referenced mentally in the manner as one looks at old pictures in a picture album or video on a monitor. It is the building of mental representations from active manipulation of the environment in relationship to a current best fit mental representations.
  • Visual and spatial thinking pervades all human everyday tasks, like finding ones way through a shopping mall and back to your parked car, arranging items in drawers or on shelves, rearranging furniture, mental maps, reading comprehension, all construction activities, and for making and interpreting gesture. Visual and spatial relationships include two and three-dimensional drawings and models representing objects, events, and ideas. Objects and ideas such as molecular structures, DNA, cells, magnetic fields, circulation of blood, operation of body systems, solar systems, galaxies, interactions, maps, circuits, and virtually any system and how its subsystems interact, geometry, mathematical properties of number, number patterns, mathematical operations, functions, graphing, representations of any mathematical idea, and as a tool for problem solving.
  • Visual learning is the process used to become visually literate.
  • Visual literacy is the ability to decode visual actions, objects, symbols, and other images and gain meaning from them and to encode thoughts and ideas and express them with visual representations.
  • Visual spatial skills

Careers That Require a High Degree of Visual Literacy
or spatial / visual abilities and skills

  • Acoustics
  • aerodynamics airline and airport management
  • anthropology
  • architecture
  • art and design
  • astronomy
  • astrophysics
  • auto mechanics
  • aviation
  • bacteriology
  • biochemistry
  • biology
  • botany
  • ceramics
  • carpentry
  • chemistry
  • city planning
  • communication arts
  • computer science
  • construction
  • cryogenics
  • dance
  • dentistry
  • drafting
  • driver training
  • earth science
  • engineering
  • environmental planning
  • fish and wildlife management
  • forestry
  • geography
  • geology
  • geophysics
  • glass technology
  • graphic arts
  • health services
  • horticulture hydrology
  • industrial arts
  • industrial design
  • industrial hygiene
  • industrial technology
  • landscape design
  • mathematics
  • medical technology
  • medicine
  • metallurgy
  • nursing
  • pharmacy and pharmacology
  • photometry
  • physical education
  • physics
  • physiology
  • plumbing
  • quality control
  • radiology
  • recreation
  • shipping
  • telecommunications
  • therapy (occupational and physical)
  • traffic and transportation
  • x-ray technology

Visual Spatial Research

  • Gestures, which are made simultaneous and spontaneous do not slow down a person’s thinking or hinder it.
  • When people who were taught something, while sitting on their hands, compared to a group taught the same thing while not sitting on their hands, performed better.
  • Peggy Blackwell summarizes gender differences as follows: Women, as a consequence of socialization or genetics or both, have difficulty perceiving relationships in and among three-dimensional objects. For example, some women find it difficult to drive a car in reverse, or to determine how a mechanical object works simply by looking at it. Many women do not automatically learn, at home or at school, the total concept of space, which includes direction, distance, perspective, movement, and relationships of objects to each other in space. Women have consistently shown a sex differentiated lack of what is called spatial visualization and spatial orientation.
  • Barbara Moses found that the ability to think visually is not innate and can be improved. She found a strong positive relationship between problem-solving and visual/spatial thinking skills. She also found the greatest improvement among female learners who had few previous direct experiences with visual thinking.
  • Smith and Schroeder found that fourth graders who received training in visual thinking outperformed those who did not and there was no difference between the sexes in how training affected their abilities to perform visual/spatial tasks.
  • Herbert Cohen used SCIIS materials with fifth grade students and found both males and females significantly improved in logical and visual thinking abilities.
  • Smith and Litman compared training of fourth graders with training of adolescents and concluded that both can benefit from instruction at the fourth grade level; but if instruction is postponed to early adolescence, only boys benefit.
  • Pallarand and Seeber found that community college students significantly increased their visual thinking abilities after instruction that was based in large part on the SCIS fourth grade unit "Relative Position and Motion".
  • Lord found that regular experiences with spatial tasks significantly improved visual and spatial thinking of college biology students.
  • Siegel and Schadler, found that that boys were more accurate in constructing scale models of their classroom than girls. Herman and Siegel found that boys outperformed girls in a task of reconstructing a model of a large scale model town that they had explored.


These differences might be explained by the differences in toys that boys and girls play with, differences in parental responses to girls and boys manipulation of toys, differences in amount of space boys and girls are allowed to explore and play, amount of time spent outdoors, and distances allowed to roam from home.

Research supports three ideas

  1. Boys tend to outperform girls on visual/spatial tasks;
  2. Visual/spatial abilities can be improved through instruction; and
  3. Both sexes benefit from planned visual and spatial experiences, but girls benefit most if a narrowing of a gender gap in visual/spatial thinking is achieved.

School more than any other institution is responsible for the down grading of visual thinking. Many educators are not only disinterested in visual thinking, they are hostile toward it and regard it as childish, primitive, and prelogical. They emphasize information stored in proper categories with little thought to connecting it with the real world. This is counter to what research shows: students with teachers whose instruction has learners make more mathematical connections, perform better at all levels of representation (concrete, iconic, & abstract) than those with less experiences.

Research to support that communication begins with our hands and may be more related to visual spatial thinking than previously thought.

Thinking with your Hands: The surprising science behind how gestures shape our thoughts. Susan Goldin-Meadow. 2023. Basic Books.

Thinking with Your Hands cover

Visual Spacial Skills developed by Alan J. McCormack

Visual/Spatial Perception

  • Ability to form mental images of observed objects.
  • Ability to observe fine details of objects
  • Making connections between real objects and drawings, photographs, or media images that represent the object.

Visual/Spatial Memory

  • Storage and retrieval of mental images representing previously observed objects.
  • Communicating descriptions of previously perceived objects through drawing.
  • Visualizing objects based on verbal descriptions.

Logical Visual/Spatial Thinking

  • Visualization of elements in a pattern.
  • Figure completions.
  • Identifying hidden shapes (embedded figures).
  • Visualizing objects as observed from different points of view.
  • Interpreting 2-D representations of 3-D objects.
  • Visualizing sections of objects.
  • Identifying and constructing surface patterns of 3-D objects.
  • Visualizing rotations of 3-D objects.
  • Visualizing motions of objects.
  • Making inferences regarding shapes of objects based on shadows they cast.
  • Visualizing a previously observed or predicted transformation of an object.

Creative Visual/Spatial Thinking

  • Creating fantasy images.
  • Visual intentions of devices, creatures, solutions to problems.
  • Janusian imagery (holding two mental images in the mind at the same moment.
  • Imaging alternate future events.
  • Imaging alternate explanations for operation of physical system based on partial observation.
  • Fluency, flexibility, and originality in production of divergent mental images related to a stimulus.
  • Ability to tap subconscious states through relaxation, meditation, dreams, etc.
  • Ability to create visual humor through cartoons, pantomime, and drawings.
  • Ability to create visual metaphors.
  • Willingness to risk experiences with fantasy.

Six Modes of Visual Learning (developed by the Polaroid Education Program)

  1. Exploring: the use of objects or pictures to identify and differentiate properties and their relationships to other properties. Similarities, differences, longer, shorter, tall, short, big, small, same, different, discriminate between letter and number shapes b, d, 2, 5.
  2. Recording: sketching, drawing, photographing, video-recording. Can develop the ability to sequence events in time, understand transformations, and improve memory through chaining of events. The ability to put together visual memories or actual recordings is directly tied to telling and interpreting stories in all forms.
  3. Expressing: acting, sketching, drawing, photographing, and video-recording to express feelings and emotions. The ability to identify emotions and to display different emotions in a variety of forms. Help interpret stories in all forms including forms beyond visual to include text, punctuation, sounds, and colors.
  4. Motivating: Celebrating learner's accomplishments. Verbal encouragement, specific praise, and social recognition by learners as well as teachers. Labeling learners' creations and preserving them so that they are inviting to learners over time and give legitimate recognition to the creators.
  5. Communicating: interpret stories from different points of view and create their own stories by acting, sketching, drawing, photographing, and video-recording.
  6. Imagining and Creating: speculate and create alternative ideas and events to include in drama, sketches, drawings, photographs, and videos. Telling alternative endings to stories, interpreting what a story looks like and create the actions and images in a variety of mediums.

Instructional Activities to Develop Visual Spatial Abilities

  • Draw draw draw ... everything. See Ellen Doris, Doing What Scientist Do, 1991. Heinemann for examples of how to use drawing in science.
    • Draw everyday objects, close-up, and far away.
    • Draw cross sections of objects that have been cut, fruit, boxes, vegetables, gelatin molded in different shapes.
    • Draw objects from feeling them through a sock or in a bag.
    • Identify paths through mazes.
    • Paths on maps.
    • Paths or steps used to create in Logo to create visual objects.
    • Look for differences in drawings with discrepant details. Find Waldo, Where's Waldo and other similar books.
    • Observe visual illusions.
    • Drawings from observing objects through a microscope, hand lens, telescope, or binoculars.
    • Make drawings from another person's descriptions.
    • Compare real objects with photographs or drawings of the objects.
    • Create logs of objects as they change over time.
    • Drawing a plant from day to day or season to season.
    • Drawing interactions of other objects. Activities that involve figure rotations, reflections, projections, and pattern recognition.
    • Use pattern blocks, attribute games, Geo blocks, Unifix cubes, Cuisenaire rods and cubes.
    • Shadow activities.
    • Brainstorm with drawings.
  • Concept Maps or Webs
  • Concept maps can be created for related ideas to show how those ideas relate. Idea sketches of what learners think another person is thinking (thinking process maps or mind maps), or what an author in a book might want to communicate.
  • Charts, Diagrams, Venn diagrams, Graphs, Maps
  • Have learners make charts and diagrams of information they collect.
  • Draw maps or sketches from memory. Location of objects in space. Draw a map of the local store, draw a diagram of how your room is arranged, your closet. Draw an object from memory upside-down.
  • Artistic Creations
  • Have learners represent a concept with an artistic creation. What would an artist create to express the concept of balance of nature, rain cycle, reptile, body system, rock crystals, pollution
  • Visual Imaging
  • Have learners picture a voyage through a body system, through an object, a light beam traveling through space, a molecule as it is change physically or chemically, zooming from cosmic view to subatomic scale, traveling through geological time, erosion, arriving in a different environment.
  • Imagineering
  • Creating an oddball invention.
  • Inventors Workshop.
  • Observe a picture or projection of one for a short period of time and draw or write what you observed.
    • How to prepare a food dish from memory.
    • Recount the steps of an experiment or steps in the procedure of solving a problem.
    • Paper folding.
    • Learners imagine they are performing an activity or imagine an activity being performed.
    • Visualize throwing free throws in basketball.
    • Visualize an object being transformed, motion through space, trajectories of objects, objects being transformed by flips, rotations, or morphed.
    • Create fantasy creations.
    • Create a model of an organism with unusual abilities.
    • Create a flower model with the greatest adaptability or ability to reproduce.
  • Models of objects such as ear, eye, steam engine
  • Take apart an object and put it back together. Household objects, lamps, clocks, or other appliances.,
  • Computer programs to make objects or solve spatial problems.
  • Dramatization stories, the respiration process, water cycle, cell division, problem solving, mathematics concepts and operations.
  • Use photography to tell a story with pictures.
  • Video-recording select and record images to tell a story. Or create a drama, act it out, and video images to accompany it.