New picture of intelligence highlights the overlooked role of visuospatial abilities

December 16, 2001

Research offers more evidence that intelligence goes beyond verbal skills

WASHINGTON -- When we say that people "know their way around," we really mean they're smart. Now, psychologists have evidence that strong visuospatial skills and working memory may be at least as good as verbal skills and working memory as indicators of general intelligence. New research correlates visuospatial abilities, less extensively explored than verbal abilities in intelligence research, with the brain's "executive function," the central cognitive command and control that may lie at the heart of smarts. These findings appear in the December issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology - General, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

A five-psychologist research team from across the United States tested 167 participants on a variety of tasks to discern the relationships among spatial abilities (abilities to solve visuospatial problems), visuospatial working memory (an ability to temporarily store relevant visuospatial information), and executive functioning (the brain's supervisory or regulatory functions). The resulting pattern of interactions paint a clear picture.

Participants who were good at complex visuospatial tasks that involved visually encoding items, maintaining those images, and manipulating them -- in other words, people who had more effective "inner sketchpads" (useful in everything from rearranging the furniture to fitting luggage into the trunk of the car) -- also performed better on executive function tasks. Such executive functions, somewhat analogous to the functions of company executives, included coordinating multiple tasks, setting up and managing various goals and subgoals, avoiding impulsive response tendencies and inhibiting automatic but incorrect responses.

Because psychologists are coming to view executive functioning -- supported by the brain's frontal lobes and crucial in regulating and controlling behavior -- as central to the concept of intelligence, the results tie visuospatial ability to general intelligence.

Miyake et al. also looked at how well visuospatial working memory and executive function correlated with three basic spatial abilities. Executive ability had the strongest correlation with spatial visualization, which required complex multi-step visuospatial reasoning, and the lowest correlation with perceptual speed, which required quick visual matching of simple shapes. (The third ability tested was spatial relations, which required mentally rotating a simple figure quickly.)

In short, participants who were better "visualizers" and can solve complex visuospatial problems accurately and quickly also had stronger executive function. This makes sense, say the researchers, because spatial visualization tests are more complex than perceptual speed tests and thus draw on the mental "executive" more fully, revealing the close ties between the two.

According to the authors, the implications are clear for everything from measurement to education and training, with potential for ensuring that the intelligence of visuospatially oriented people is not discounted. These people have been viewed as having strengths limited to the practical, mechanical and technical realms. "Traditional IQ tests have more verbally oriented items than visuospatial," says the article's lead author, Akira Miyake, Ph.D., of the University of Colorado at Boulder. "Understanding the nature of visuospatial abilities and their relationships to general intelligence or to general-purpose executive functions should contribute strongly to more fair and comprehensive tests of intelligence."

The study also lends support to the emerging view that intelligence has both multiple discrete components -- such as, for example, the independent verbal and visuospatial domains -- and an over-arching general aspect, which Miyake et al. believe may be "executive function," tapped when the domains undertake more complex or novel tasks. Executive function may also coordinate and modulate the domains' various lower-level processes.
The article's other co-authors are Naomi P. Friedman, Ph.D., also of the University of Colorado at Boulder; David A. Rettinger, Ph.D., of Yeshiva University; Priti Shah, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and Mary Hegarty, Ph.D., of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Article: Akira Miyake, Ph.D., and Naomi P. Friedman, University of Colorado at Boulder; David A. Rettinger, Ph.D., Yeshiva University; Priti Shah, Ph.D., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and Mary Hegarty, Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara; "How are Visuospatial Working Memory, Executive Functioning, and Spatial Abilities Related? A Latent-Variable Analysis" ; Journal of Experimental Psychology - General, Vol. 130, No. 4.

Akira Miyake can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 303-492-2305.

(Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and at )

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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