information in functional ways. Architects slice space into two-dimensional planes. Air traffic controllers slice space into two-dimensional layers and time into slices.

Researchers have investigated how air traffic controllers think about space and time in order to create display systems that conform to the process of spatial thinking (Wickens, 1992, 1998; Wickens and Mayor, 1997). Air traffic controllers think about space as an ordered stack of two-dimensional layers varying in altitude and can deal with each layer separately, turning a three-dimensional task into a series of two-dimensional tasks. This way of thinking has affected the design of visual support systems for air traffic controllers and the way in which flows of incoming and departing aircraft are organized. Aircraft are confined to altitude layers as a function of flight distance and destination. There are complex interactions between the ways in which the mind structures a multifaceted problem and the way in which we design cognitive tools and support systems to facilitate performance.

Earlier, we observed that one hallmark of an experienced architect is the ability to make behavioral or functional inferences from structural spatial information. This ability characterizes expertise in other domains as well. Experts at mechanical thinking, for example, can “see” how a device will behave from its structure (Heiser and Tversky, submitted). They can look at the structure of a bicycle pump or car brake or pulley system and anticipate its operation, understanding how parts move and affect each other to produce desired outcomes. Novices or people low in spatial ability can also understand the structural relations among the parts of a device, but they have difficulty anticipating its behavior or function. Teaching this spatial thinking skill is part of the process of turning novices into experts in everyday life, in the workplace, and in science.


The effectiveness of nonverbal processes of mental imagery and spatial visualization … can be explained, at least in part, by reference to the following interrelated aspects of such processes: their private and therefore not socially, conventionally, or institutionally controlled nature; their richly concrete and isomorphic structure; their engagement of highly developed, innate mechanisms of spatial intuition; and their direct emotional impact. (Shepard, 1988, p. 174)

Spatial thinking is deeply implicated in the conduct of science. This is not to argue that science can only be done by means of spatial thinking. It is to argue that many classic discoveries and everyday procedures of science draw extensively on the processes of spatial thinking.

The Executive Summary describes the role of spatial thinking in one of the great discoveries in modern science, Crick and Watson’s double-helix model of the structure of DNA in biochemistry. Chapter 1 illustrates the role of spatial thinking in epidemiology. Here, the committee focuses on spatial thinking in astronomy, geoscience, and geography. These sciences have many things in common. They are Earth-centric. They are empirical sciences that are predominantly nonexperimental in character, relying on interpretation of hard-won observations of existing situations. In recent decades, each has experienced floods of data from newly developed observational technologies: sensors (such as seismographs and high-resolution hydrophones), sampling devices (such as deep sea and ice core drilling technologies), satellites (including multispectral imagery and global positioning systems [GPS]), and platforms (such as the Hubble telescope and the Alvin submersible).

Astronomy, geoscience, and geography have gone from being data impoverished to data enriched, if not data overwhelmed, placing a premium on the ability to manage and interpret data. At the same time, each has developed procedures to deal with data problems: generalization to cope with overspecificity and detail; extrapolation and interpolation to deal with missing data; correction procedures to deal with error and uncertainty. Because of the inherently spatial nature of their

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement