Saturday, June 23, 2018

Spatial Intelligence

Consider the case of Kevin Garnett. Because he did so poorly on his SAT's that college made no sense, he went directly from high school to the NBA. Yet while he was in the NBA he was one of the greatest defensive players of all time. He had the physical tools that players need to excel: height, speed, leaping ability, gross motor and fine motor skills.  But lots of players have those and don't become all-timers. KG was known for perceiving angles and positioning, seeing how one small change in his positioning would affect not only his opponent, but the movement of the other players on the floor. Lebron has this ability as well, to notice and exploit what an opposing player is doing at a very small level. It is strongly related to "seeing the floor," though not quite the same. What observers call "anticipation" is sometimes this automatic spatial reasoning, though there is another sort of anticipation related to memory.

All basketball players must have some of this; not all are exceptional. Some rely on physical skills almost entirely.

So the SAT's don't pick this up, or at least not in isolation, though it is clearly an intellectual skill.  I don't think schools pick up on this very well either. We all knew guys in school who could figure out everything about engines but had trouble passing classes. School and SAT's require that you be able to translate this in and out of written symbols to demonstrate the skill.  If you don't have the skill with letters and symbols, your ability will go unrecognised as far as academics are concerned.  Engineering students often have both.  That is necessary in order to use the spatial skill with others, drawing up plans, following procedures. I don't know if there are good ways of measuring spatial intelligence in isolation.

It is used in a lot of outside-of-school skills.  Some females have it, but I think fewer than males. With the ridiculously low sample size of exceptional basketball players, most of whom are black, I wonder if there is not some school unfairness for them as well.  Some, at least, have this intellectual ability but do poorly on the tests and in the classroom.  I don't know the WAIS well enough to know the racial breakdowns on subtests. My recollection is that African-Americans were closer to average on verbal (the supposedly culture-loaded sections) but worse on math sections. Still, the WAIS is paper-and-pencil, still symbol driven.


Dan Kurt said...

Me thinks you are making excuses for Human Biodiversity as if the low mean intellectual ability of our black and brown neighbors is terribly wrong, it can't actually be correct, and must have an ameliorating solution if we search for it. At any rate, you came up with your "automatic spatial reasoning" which appears to be small beer to me.

As to Basketball as a sport, the accident of its structure (design) of having the hoop set at 10 ft, selects for freakishly tall players. This could be fixed easily by just raising the hoop height to 20 ft. I doubt if any supposed "automatic spatial reasoning" would manifest itself if the hoop were not accessible by any jumping bean pole.

Dan Kurt

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Dan - you thinks wrongly. Don't make assumptions about what I think about HBD. If you have any evidence to bear on the subject of spatial intelligence, I would be interested in it.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

As to the height of the hoop, one could more quickly equalise against height by lowering the basket. Raising it would remove dunking, but would still give the advantage to tall people in rebounding and jumpshots. All sports have accidental elements in their structure. Even track has arbitrary distances.

james said...

I agree; this isn't measured well at all. Maybe some origami exercises?

Dan Kurt said...

re: "If you have any evidence to bear on the subject of spatial intelligence..."

I think you are dissecting varieties of athleticism or kinesthetics.

I played a lot of sports as a youth, and just as in school where a few clearly were more "smart" than their classmates, in sports some people were really, really good and clearly were more "athletic" than the average bear. I recall one guy who when playing the outfield made it look effortless and always knew where to be when a ball was hit on a fly so he could catch it whether it was a line drive or a high fly ball; and when it was hit over his head he knew when to stop chasing it so he didn't crash into the back fence. He was an average student. Years later I learned about the technique he was following to be such a great fielder. I don't know if he just unconsciously picked up the technique or whether he was coached on how to do it but a technique exists that dramatically increases one's chance to make the catch and it only marginally relies on athleticism or even "spatial intelligence."

As to "...assumptions about what I [AVI] think about HBD," I was just spouting my impression from the tenor of your post. It was a guess and I could be wrong.

Dan Kurt

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Read the post again. I think I was clear I was not simply talking about athletic ability, nor even the skills of tracking, which I think are largely athletic. I also referenced this being more common among males, including guys who can work on mechanical things but don't necessarily light it up in school. I have previously maintained that boys are disadvantaged in school, as schools are largely designed by women, for girls.

In football, wide receivers don't necessarily need the skill, though some might have it. I think QB's need it, and am sure whoever designs plays has to have it - the interlocking nature of movement on the field. It struck me as odd that two players who clearly have lots of the ability, which looks cognitive in part, however much it might also be a result of practice, have nothing in their academic record that picks it up. It's hard to even think about elite basketball without noticing that most of the players are black. And so I wondered what is going on.

As a side note that I think is related, basketball is more three-dimensional than hockey or soccer.

Grim said...

I have a young male relative whom I ask to look at complex mechanical parts if it isn’t clear to me how to assemble them. He has no training, but can look at it and ‘see’ how they fit together almost every time.

It’s a real thing. The ASVAB tests for it.

David Foster said...


David Foster said...

"guys who can work on mechanical things but don't necessarily light it up in school"...there was once a type of computer, the Mechanical Differential Analyzer, which worked by representing a differential equation in terms of shaft and wheel rotations. (Military fire-control computers worked similarly.) Vannevar Bush, a designer of such machines (also FDR's science advisor during WWII) observed that a machinist who had worked on the Differential Analyzer construction developed an intuitive understanding of calculus, even though he had never formally studied it.

There is a group at Marshall University which had built some differential analyzers and is exploring their use as pedagogical tools. I'll be posting on this shortly.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

A relative of bs king's who is an engineer was working with the church youth group on something-or-other which involved building. He pointed out one girl who could look at pieces and knew how they fit, never getting them turned around or flipped over in her head, and recommended that she go into engineering or science because she had that ability.

I don't have it, BTW, or not lots of it anyway. I score very well on tests, but I can sense that this is an ability I just don't have. Like anything, if I had to perform tasks like that long enough I would improve, or more likely, develop work-arounds using abilities I do have. Anecdote: I described the notorious Problem #36 from the Mega Test, with the three interpenetrating cubes that almost no one answers correctly, to a friend of mine who had been a math major at Brown and was then in the Army doing some incomprehensible thing in the Pacific involving undetectable communication between moving objects - boats, subs, planes, land vehicles in the 1980's. His eyes glazed a bit and he seemed to fit one cube into another. Then he squinted and waggled his head and seemed to be trying to fit the third in. Then he realised it was some regular figure and smiled. The whole time, I knew that he was doing something I had no answer for in my own brain.

Grim said...

The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). Everyone seeking enlistment takes it. There are two sections that deal with this.

Alto2 said...

You see this spatial skill strongly in soccer players too-- cf. the ongoing World Cup. Good players unerringly know where their pass-mates are on the field, where the members of the other team are, what the pre-existing strategic plans call for-- and they model this all dynamically (because everyone is moving) and instantly, enabling them to make lightning-fast decisions on how and where to kick the ball. Players of African descent are overrepresented there unsurprisingly.

I've noticed this odd split between applied and embodied spatial skill on the one hand, and academically-mediated spatial skill as translated into symbolic language on the other, in East Asian folks too. I wonder if tests like the SAT overstate Asian 'intelligence' just as they might understate African intelligence when it comes to the uses of spatial ability in the manifold activities of real life.