Achieving Cognitive Balance

by Annie Murphy Paul
July 25, 2013

Girls should play more video games.

That’s one of the unexpected lessons I take away from a rash of recent studies on the importance of—and the malleability of—spatial skills.

First, why spatial skills matter: The ability to mentally manipulate shapes and otherwise understand how the three-dimensional world works turns out to be an important predictor of creative and scholarly achievements, according to research published this month in the journal Psychological Science. The long-term study found that 13-year-olds’ scores on traditional measures of mathematical and verbal reasoning predicted the number of scholarly papers and patents these individuals produced three decades later.

But high scores on tests of spatial ability taken at age 13 predicted something more surprising: the likelihood that the individual would develop new knowledge and produce innovation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the domains collectively known as STEM.

The good news is that spatial abilities can get better with practice. A meta-analysis of 217 research studies, published in the journal Psychological Science last year, concluded that “spatial skills are malleable, durable and transferable”: that is, spatial skills can be improved by training; these improvements persist over time; and they “transfer” to tasks that are different from the tasks used in the training.

This last point is supported by a study published just last month in the Journal of Cognition and Development, which reported that training children in spatial reasoning can improve their performance in math. A single twenty-minute training session in spatial skills enhanced participants’ ability to solve math problems, suggesting that the training “primes” the brain to tackle arithmetic, says study author and Michigan State University education professor Kelly Mix.

Findings like these have led some researchers to advocate for the addition of spatial-skills training to the school curriculum. That’s not a bad idea, but here’s another way to think about it: the informal education children receive can be just as important as what they learn in the classroom. We need to think more carefully about how kids’ formal and informal educational experiences fit together, and how one can fill gaps left by the other.

If traditional math and reading skills are emphasized at school, for example, parents can make sure that spatial skills are accentuated at home—starting early on, with activities as simple as talking about the spatial properties of the world around us. A 2011 study from researchers at the University of Chicago reported that the number of spatial terms (like “circle,” “curvy,” and “edge”) parents used while interacting with their toddlers predicted how many of these kinds of words children themselves produced, and how well they performed on spatial problem-solving tasks at a later age.

As kids grow older, much of the experience they get in manipulating three-dimensional objects comes from playing video games—which brings us back to the contention at the start of this article. Males have historically held the advantage over females in spatial ability, and this advantage has often been attributed to genetic differences. But males’ spatial edge may also reflect, in part, differences in the leisure-time activities of boys and girls, activities that add up to a kind of daily drill in spatial skills for boys.

If that’s the case, then offering girls more opportunities to practice their spatial skills may begin to close the spatial-skills gender gap—and produce more female scientists, engineers and mathematicians in the bargain. So suggests a study by University of Toronto researchers, published in the journal Psychological Science. They found that playing an action video game “can virtually eliminate” the gender difference in a basic capacity they call spatial attention, while at the same time reducing the gender difference in the ability to mentally rotate objects, a higher-level spatial skill.

Exposure to video games, the authors conclude, “could play a significant role as part of a larger strategy designed to interest women in science and engineering careers.” Participants with little prior video-game exposure “realized large gains after only ten hours of training,” they note, adding that “we can only imagine the benefits that might be realized after weeks, months, or even years of action-video-gaming experience.”

Parents of daughters may blanch at the idea of actually encouraging “years” of action video game play. These moms and dads should tell themselves that their daughters aren’t wasting their time—they’re readying themselves for brilliant careers as scientists and engineers.

Annie Murphy PaulAnnie Murphy Paul is a book author, magazine journalist, consultant and speaker who helps people understand how we learn and how we can do it better. A contributing writer for Time magazine, she writes a weekly column about learning for Time.com, and also blogs about learning at CNN.com, Forbes.com, MindShift.com, PsychologyToday.com and HuffingtonPost.com. She contributes to The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among many other publications. She is the author of The Cult of Personality, a cultural history and scientific critique of personality tests, and of Origins, a book about the science of prenatal influences. She is now at work on Brilliant: The New Science of Smart, to be published by Crown in 2013.