Things I don’t know how to do: orient myself in space

The New York Times recently covered the latest paper from the Benbow-Lubinski group at Vanderbilt about factors measurable in youth that correlate with adult achievement.  I always enjoy reading these studies because, as a person who scored well on the math SAT at a young age, I’m in their dataset somewhere.

The new paper finds a small but detectable (positive) effect of spatial ability in children on adult measures like patents granted and papers published in STEM.  I hope I didn’t mess up their z-score too badly, because I stink at spatial ability.  I recently revealed to Dr. Mrs. Q., who was horrified, that when we’re inside the house I can’t tell what direction the wall I’m facing corresponds to in the outside world.  Moreover, if I’m on the ground floor, I can’t tell you what’s directly above me on the top floor, or directly below me in the basement.  This is presumably related to my inability to correctly swipe a credit card at the gas pump.

Interesting fact about spatial ability:  it can be trained by sufficient exposure to first-person shooters.

As for the new paper (full author list: Kell, Lubinski, Benbow, and Steiger) I have some quarrels with it.  Their way of measuring “creativity and innovation” is to split the subjects into

  • those who have obtained a patent but have not published a paper
  • those who have published a paper in natural science, math, or engineering (aka STEM)
  • those who have published a paper in biology in medicine
  • those who have publications in the arts, law, the humanities, or social science
  • everybody else

I think the binary variable “has published a paper in science” vs. “has not published a paper in science” is a pretty bad proxy for creativity.  It is a much better proxy for “pursued an academic career for at least some point in their life.”

What’s more:  from the New York Times lede

A gift for spatial reasoning — the kind that may inspire an imaginative child to dismantle a clock or the family refrigerator — may be a greater predictor of future creativity or innovation than math or verbal skills, particularly in math, science and related fields, according to a study published Monday in the journal Psychological Science.

you might think having high spatial ability is good for creativity.  But the results are more complicated than that.  People who’d published at least one STEM paper had higher spatial reasoning scores than those who didn’t.  But people with an artistic, literary, legal, or social-scientific publication had lower spatial reasoning scores than the mean.  What the Times ought to have said is that spatial reasoning may have an effect on what kind of creative tasks a kid grows up to undertake.


7 thoughts on “Things I don’t know how to do: orient myself in space

  1. piper says:

    i always thought spatial ability was being able to rotate pictures in your head. something i used to be good at but have gotten worse at. i’ve never known where the outside world was in relation to my inside world though. i can spend many minutes trying to figure out what’s on the other side of a wall of my apartment. i have come to assume it was because these skills were not taught to me or valued in me as a child. i get laughed at by certain people because if i’m indoors and telling you how to get somewhere i will point as i talk, but i’m not pointing to anything. (i’ve decided that i’m orienting myself with respect to walking out the front door because that’s where i start picturing directions from, but i haven’t actually verified this.)

  2. Allen K. says:

    I feel for you, Jordan. I have only met one or two people who might have worse senses of direction than myself. I assumed from a young age that I was lazy and other people were working at keeping track, but met so many otherwise clueless (or, say, 4-year-old) people who were loads better than I am, that I decided it’s more like having an inconveniently placed brain lesion.

    And as such I’ve always hated first-person shooters. I can get lost just fine even without being shot at at the same time.

    By necessity, I’ve gotten pretty good at determining North using the sun and time of day. (Or in Southern California, the palm trees, which phototropically point South even at night.)

  3. Ø says:

    I think I’m very good at many mental spatial manipulations, but I obviously have some blind spots in that area.

    There are plenty of buildings for which I have never troubled to reconcile the indoor mental map with the outdoor map. If, say, several turns and some stairs are involved in getting from the entry door to the doctor’s office, then unless I happen to see a landmark out the window I will have either no idea or an unreliable idea of which way I am facing. I like knowing the answer, and may even resent finding that i have the wrong answer. Sometimes I even take the trouble to work it out. But, oddly, I don’t always then remember it right–especially if I had it wrong for a while.

    Likewise, there is a part of Boston where I spent a lot of time one summer. I used to come and go almost exclusively by subway, and I started off with a wrong impression of which way I was facing in relation to the big world (as opposed to the neighborhood) when I came out from underground. So for years my mental map of that neighborhood was oriented wrongly in relation to my mental map of the city or the region. It was decades before I got it straight.

    – Tom Goodwillie

  4. JB says:

    For the first many times I got out of the T station at Harvard Square, I found myself walking in exactly the wrong direction. I never thought about it until it was too late, but I was wrong every single time. Then I started thinking about it but still kept getting it wrong with 100% certainty. Then I realized the problem. The doors on the outbound train open on the left side there. I wonder if that was emptyset’s problem… (who I now know is TG!!)

  5. Richard Kent says:

    Tom’s story about the neighborhood reminds me that after going to Park City, UT for many years for a regular conference, and never driving, I was very disoriented upon discovering (after driving there) that Main Street runs more or less North/South as I had thought, but that South is the uphill direction. This still bothers me. North is up dammit!

  6. NDE says:

    Berkeley must be *really* confusing then…

  7. I realize I’m commenting on an old post here, but does anyone else find it odd that people with an artistic publication had lower spatial reasoning scores than the mean?

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