Can you mentally rotate a three-dimensional object, getting a clear sense of how it looks it from a variety of angles? It’s a specific cognitive skill that has been the subject of much study in recent years, since it’s a key component of processing spatial information. Professionals ranging from auto mechanics to brain surgeons rely on this ability.
A newly published study suggests there may be a way to enhance this important skill, and it does not involve spending hours in front of a computer screen. Rather, it suggests students might want to put down their laptops and pick up a musical instrument, or suit up and take to the sports field.
Two German researchers report student musicians and athletes performed better at a standard mental-rotation task than a group of their peers. Moreover, for musicians, the much-discussed gender gap in this important arena disappeared, with women catching up to men.
Stefanie Pietsch and Petra Jansen of the University of Regensburg Institute of Sport Science report their findings in the journal Learning and Individual Differences.
Their study featured 120 students (60 men and 60 women) enrolled at a German university. One-third of the participants were musicians, one-third athletes, and the final third education students who did not participate in either sports or music. The athletes and musicians reported how many years they have been practicing and how many hours they practiced per week.
The participants then took two tests: one to measure their cognitive processing speed, and a standard mental rotation test, in which they compared configurations of blocks. They were given a "target" image of a three-dimensional structure, and then asked which of four additional images depicted that same structure as seen from a different perspective.
The results were intriguing. For the education students, men gave correct answers at twice the rate of women (a finding that confirms those of previous studies). For athletes, the gap was narrowed; the number of correct answers increased for women but shot up even higher among men, to the point where male athletes had the highest score overall.
Among musicians, men scored just a bit higher than the education students, but women’s scores rocketed up, to the point where they did slightly better than their male counterparts.
“Because the female musicians in this study show a higher speed of cognitive processing,” the researchers write, “it is possible that their ability to process information quickly, combined with their long-term motor training, may explain their enhanced mental rotation ability.”
The researchers speculate that musicians learn to think in terms of spatial relationships “because notes are coded in terms of their spatial positions.” This makes intuitive sense. A musician, like an athlete, instinctively learns to navigate through space: one reads notes on a staff, while another masters the parameters of a tennis court or football field.
While this one small study is hardly conclusive, it provides more evidence of the drawbacks of a basics-only approach to education. Such an approach ignores the ways important mental processes are enhanced by learning that occurs outside the core curriculum. This research suggests, in the words of Pietsch and Jansen, that “playing an instrument or a sport for many years has an enhancing effect on a specific cognitive task” — one that confers real-world benefits.