Geologists study rock formations in the here and now and from limited angles and depths. That’s why it’s crucial they be able to visualize what they can’t see or touch. Doing so allows them to deduce what may have happened millions of years ago the led the formations to look they way they do now. Without spatial thinking, such analysis would be impossible.

And so would understanding topographic maps, an important tool used by earth scientists, backpackers, geographers, and others. “Geographers tend to be highly spatial people, and one of the things they insist on knowing, especially when they’re in an unfamiliar place, is where north is,” says Newcombe, who often collaborates with geographers on spatial cognition. “They’ll take out their compass, and once they find out which way north is, they’re okay. It’s a really important part of their lives.”

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