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Spatial ability is heritable and distinct from other abilities

Spatial abilities – allowing us to imagine and mentally manipulate objects – influence how easily we pack a suitcase or follow instructions to assemble flat-pack furniture, and are also thought to predict success in scientific and mathematical fields.

Previous research had found that variations between individuals' spatial ability scores are strongly influenced by differences in their DNA. In research published today in Scientific Reports, scientists from King's College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) have found that around half of this genetic influence on spatial ability is specific to it, and not related to other abilities such as reading.

The research involved creating a new set of spatial ability tests and asking participants to identify objects which had been rotated or partly hidden. These tests were given to nearly 3,000 twins from the Twins Early Development Study, which has followed thousands of British twins for over 20 years.

Although spatial ability was shown to be strongly distinct from other skills, there was no such specificity among the spatial abilities themselves: identifying rotated objects, hidden objects, 2D and 3D shapes, and picturing solid objects from 'wireframe' plans, were all influenced by exactly the same set of genes. This suggests that people who are good at one of these spatial skills are likely to be equally good at the others – or at least that any differences will be down to experience, not genetics.

There are many other spatial abilities not yet included in these tests, such as navigation, map-reading or architectural drawing. In future work, the researchers will explore how these skills relate to the others.

Nicholas Shakeshaft, first author, from the IoPPN at King’s, said “Spatial ability seems to be very important, especially for maths and science. Understanding these abilities in more detail will allow us to develop better tests, which could mean that anyone struggling with them can be identified more easily and given extra training. Equally, people with strengths in this area can be given the support needed to nurture their ability.”

Professor Robert Plomin, Director of the Twins Early Development Study, said: “Despite the importance of spatial abilities in predicting performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects in school and in work, little is known about the genetic and environmental causes of spatial abilities. This study is a big step forwards in systematically investigating diverse aspects of spatial abilities.”

The software developed to create the spatial tests, allowing images of computer-generated 2D and 3D objects to be created easily, is freely available here.

‘Rotation is visualisation, 3D is 2D: using a novel measure to investigate the genetics of spatial ability’ Shakeshaft et al is published today in Scientific Reports

For further information please contact Jo Rixom, Research & Communications Officer, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, Kings College London 020 7848 0063.