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Vol.32 No.3 August 1998

Brain Drain, Reconsidering Spatial Ability

Thomas G.West
Visualization Research Institute, Inc.

August 98 Columns
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Thomas G.West
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Brain Drain

Recently, a friend told me of a television program shown in Canada about the French “brain drain.” Earlier, I had seen newspaper articles about scientists and engineers leaving France because of apparently limited opportunities — coupled with their belief that they would always be known for the schools they attended rather than for how well they could perform in their work.

But this new story was of special interest to me because it involved a young computer graphics artist who could not find work in France because of her dyslexia. However, as she told the story on television, she found that she was warmly received by computer graphics companies in the U.S. They were interested in her artistic skills and thought the dyslexia was not a problem — since they already knew that many digital artists are dyslexic to some extent. She has since worked on many projects, including The Fifth Element and Titanic.

She told me that her personal estimate is that about half of all computer graphics artists are probably dyslexic. Some readers may think her estimate is rather large until we recall that the rate was given at fully 75 percent in the only systematic such study done so far — that is, the study of first-year students in a London art school. [1]

In France, her difficulties with writing and working under pressure had kept her from passing exams — even those required to enter art school. In the U.S., however, she was able to have accommodations with exams so she could finally receive a professional education in her areas of strength. She was not forced to be judged in areas that were largely irrelevant to her work and talent. She expressed concern that the educational system in France still has done very little to address these problems.

This story highlights for us, once again, the great changes we seem to be going through — and the increasingly evident inconsistencies between the skills valued in the old verbal technological context and the skills more highly valued in the emerging technologies of images and visualization. The old world of the book and writing required one set of talents and skills, while the expanding world of moving images and visualized information (as noted in previous columns) seems to require quite a different set.

Some might argue that the move to images is really quite superficial — even retrograde, indeed, as it would appear to shift attention and time from basic verbal literacy. However, we can argue that, especially for the young, visual literacy will be as important, or more important, than verbal literacy. (Of course, you want proficiency in both as much as possible, but we should not allow real visual talent to be dropped by the wayside just because of verbal difficulties.)

Furthermore, we can also make a case that the experience of this digital artist may be very close indeed to the experience of the scientists and engineers mentioned in passing previously. More and more groups are coming to see that there is a common thread between areas that were formerly thought to be quite different. And, in this case, the common thread is a newly rediscovered awareness of the importance of visual and spatial abilities — not only in the arts but also in the sciences, mathematics and related disciplines. In spite of strong conventions of thought and common belief, we are seeing a gradual reawakening of interest in spatial abilities that were formerly thought to be relatively unimportant in most areas.

Rediscovering Spatial Abilities

For some time, the assessment of abilities other than verbal and mathematical have been widely neglected in most educational settings. They simply were thought to be unimportant. Fortunately, this has begun to change as research groups are gradually rediscovering the real value of assessing visual and spatial capabilities.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University, for example, can provide us with a small window into what a few researchers are doing — and how views are changing in a few institutions in ways that would seem sympathetic to the perspectives of strong visual thinkers (those who seem to be well represented among SIGGRAPH members).

These researchers have been trying to improve methods of identifying scientific talent at various educational levels and to better predict performance in science education before college. They saw that the conventional verbal and mathematical reasoning measures were not enough and they determined that what was needed was a good way to assess spatial reasoning as well.

In their words: “. . . Spatial ability has been given only token attention as an important dimension of cognitive functioning. Research on the structure, identification and development of spatial ability has been conducted by a few researchers spread around the world and often ignored by the psychological and educational community. In addition, spatial ability has played only a modest role in educational assessment and instruction.” [2]

The Hopkins researchers are aware that they are to some extent breaking new ground. Of course, assessments of spatial abilities have been around for a long time. But they have never been center stage. They have nearly always been treated as tangential to the more conventional measures of academic abilities. They note that although there are other research programs similar to theirs, they are the only ones so far using measures of spatial ability in a serious way.

One area of concern with spatial tests is that they have long been thought to be gender biased in favor of men. However, the Hopkins research has shown that the truth is more complex and perhaps more balanced. They have found that while males do better with mental rotation tasks, females are significantly better at visual memory. Some studies indicate that there is a convergence so that male and female spatial skills are less dissimilar than had been believed formerly.[7]

The use of computers in the Hopkins testing program is of special interest. One obvious benefit of computer use in spatial testing is that it allows the actual rotation of objects on the screen — objects such as blocks, twisted cables or molecule structures. Another benefit is that computers also allow a form of testing that can respond to the ability level of the students. The test can drop off unnecessary questions in response to right answers. It is interactive, or in their terminology, “adaptive.” As they explain, “adaptive tests respond to students’ correct and incorrect answers. The computer program chooses questions at the last second, based on whether or not the previous item was answered correctly. This process leads to more precision in measurements with less time required for testing.” The researchers have also found that tests on computers are especially helpful to many students with learning disabilities since there is only one question on the screen at a time. And finally, with computers, the test taker receives an immediate score. [6]

Mixed Talents

It is noteworthy that the Hopkins researchers have also found that to deal effectively with the most highly talented students, one must be ready to deal with dyslexia and other learning disabilities as well. This idea is especially hard for many conventional educators to handle. By training and shared experience, they find it hard to believe that the smartest people quite often have dyslexia or some form of learning disability. It is to the credit of the Hopkins researchers that they began to see clearly, early on, that they were seeing patterns of mixed abilities in their students — patterns that many thought could not and should not exist: “She is so bright,” traditional teachers would say, “she must not be working.” Or, “if he is dyslexic, he clearly does not belong in our highly demanding educational institution.”

But the Hopkins researchers, along with a few others, are aware that some forms of learning problems are not uncommon among the most highly gifted. This is the reason that an explicit item on their six-point research agenda is: “Explore the benefits of using spatial tests to identify academic ability in students with learning disabilities. . . .” [3]

Thus, the Hopkins researchers explain that they are investigating “the relationship between the development of spatial reasoning and specific learning disabilities. Although there is much speculation about such a relationship,” they point out, “little empirical research has been conducted to establish its existence. This line of research would help us to better understand individuals with learning disabilities and assist educators as they plan appropriate educational interventions. . . .” Accordingly, they feel that “one possibility is the development of teaching approaches that utilize a spatial orientation for . . . students who possess strong spatial skills and who have difficulty learning in other modalities.” [4]

It is worth noting that the Hopkins researchers came out of a tradition started in the 1970s where they had been accustomed to dealing with only the most highly gifted students, in the beg

Unidentified Promise

The Hopkins researchers think that their new spatial tests are timely. They note that “spatial tests have been around for years, but have not been as widely administered as are tests of verbal or mathematical reasoning.” However, “today,” they observe, “some educators are intrigued by their potential. What if spatial tests were added to the regular program of standardized assessment? Could they flag abilities that currently go undetected? Could they identify promise in students who now pass more or less unnoticed?” That, at least, is their hope. [8]

Perhaps the greater use of spatial tests, coupled with a much broader understanding of the importance of rediscovered spatial abilities, might help prevent conventional educational systems from dropping by the wayside those who are especially well suited to visual and spatial tasks — whether in creating grand illusions on film or in understanding visual patterns in the stock market or complex weather systems.

Thomas G.West is author of In the Mind's Eye. He has recently been asked to join the Board of the newly reestablished Washington, D.C., area chapter of SIGGRAPH and is currently conducting research for a new book with the working title: Insight--Computer Information Visualization and the Visual Thinkers Who are Reshaping the Future of Technology and Business.

Thomas G.West
Visualization Research
National Dyslexia Research Foundation

Tel: +1-301-654-5828
Fax: +1-301-654-0987

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.


  1. “The Art of Being Dyslexic,” The Independent (London, England), Education Supplement, February 27, 1997, pp. 4-5. Cited previously in “Following the Gifts, Images and Reversals,” Computer Graphics, May 1997, p. 8.
  2. “IAAY Research: Spatial Ability,” unpublished overview, Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth, Center for Talented Youth, Center for Academic Advancement, Johns Hopkins University, p. 1.
  3. “IAAY Research: Spatial Ability,” p. 3.
  4. “IAAY Research: Spatial Ability,” pp. 2-3.
  5. Personal communication, ODS conference, November 1993, C. P. Benbow, Iowa.
  6. “Perspectives: Dr. Heinrich Stumpf and His Spatial Test,” Imagine, Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth, Johns Hopkins Press, p. 10; personal communication, May 1998, Carol J. Mills, Head of IAAY Research.
  7. “Perspectives,” Imagine, p. 10; Stumpf, H. and J. Eliot, 1995, “Gender- Related Differences in Spatial Ability . . .,” Person. Individ. Diff., vol. 19, pp. 33-45; Stumpf, H. and E. Klieme, 1989, “Sex-Related Differences in Spatial Ability: More Evidence for Convergence,” Perceptual and Motor Skills, vol. 69, pp. 915-921.
  8. “Perspectives,” Imagine, p. 11. The list of suggested further reading provided by the IAAY includes: Carrol, J.B., 1993, Human Cognitive Abilities (Cambridge University Press); Eliot, J., 1987, Models of Psychological Space (Springer-Verlag); Gardner, H., 1983, Frames of Mind (Basic Books); Nelson, R.B., 1993, Proofs Without Words: Exercises in Visual Thinking (Mathematical Association of America); Stumpf, H. , 1995, Development of a Talent Search and Related Programs for Scientific Innovation Among Youth (IAAY, CTY, Technical Report No. 12); West, T.G., 1991, In the Mind’s Eye (Prometheus Books).