Latest revision May 24. 2000                                    Bjarne Fjeldsenden

Can a congenitally blind person develop an adequate spatial aptitude? Yes, but only 3 out of 27 did
in this study. "Not strict upbringing" , appropriate physical surroundings and faint light perception  are
positively correlated with spatial aptitude. The Ohwaki-Koh Tactile Intelligence Test for the Blind is positively
correlated with practical skills and understanding of the physical world.  The congenitally blind had a better short
term memory and a better musical ability than those blind later in life , partially sighted or sighted people.
Cognitive structures are influenced both by the loss of vision, physical surroundings and the upbringing.

1: Theoretical considerations:

A partially sighted person has an aptitude structure and an understanding of the physical world very similar to a sighted person. Number of years blind seems less important than when blindness set in. Five years seem to be a critical age with respect to loss of sight according to teachers of the blind with whom I have had discussions. If they keep their vision up to this age they seem to retain some sort of visual memory which again facilitate the understanding of the physical world. The congenitally blind and the early blind ones (1-5 years) seem to stand out. In particular their spatial aptitude seems poor. There seems to be some uncertainty about the group becoming blind between 1-5 years old because there are so few becoming blind in this age group.

Spatial aptitude among the blind has been widely discussed. Warren et als. (1973) and von Senden (1960) seem to think that vision is necessary to develop the spatial aptitude. Specially von Senden sounds categorical. Juurma (1973) on the other hand seems to mean that spatial aptitude can be developed to a level comparable with an average sighted person. Piaget and Inhelder (1956) discuss the different levels of spatial aptitude in children, and Cratty (1971) discusses how the spatial aptitude can be developed in blind children. In recent years one has also tried to use the Trisensor of professor Kay with young blind children in order to develop their spatial awareness ( in Warren and Strelow 1985 p. 201-325) .

Research results from cross cultural psychology ( Berry1966, Dawson 1967) may also help us to understand which factors contribute to the development of spatial aptitude. Strict rearing/overprotective parents are negatively correlated with spatial aptitude according to the studies of Berry and Dawson just mentioned.

What is spatial aptitude? My definition is: A spatial coordination system in which all phenomena, activities and objects having
a relation to the physical world can be placed and joined together in such a way that they give a feeling of cohesiveness.

But what role does early vs. late vision play. Warren (1974) expresses that a blind person having had vision for some time retain a visual frame of reference or a spatial reference system. He goes on to discuss how important the various stages of development is without drawing any clear conclusion due to lack of adequate research.

Rosenkranz et al.(1976) "A frame of reference in ones internal representation of space seems to require a simultaneous global and symbol structure. If a person is born blind, such simultaneity can only be achieved through combinations of perceptual symbol structures from different modalities. The congenitally blind may never develop the combinations to the point of possessing a frame of reference."(p.188). Millar (1994) seems to share this view.

The authors argues against Juurma, but tend to consider all the congenitally blind individuals as one group, even if differences within the group is reported and related to "frame of reference"

Schneekloth, L.H.(1989) argues that the physical environment is of great significance for the spatial development of the congenitally blind. Complex surrounding stimulate activity which again seem to be positively correlated with cognitive development. This is clearly demonstrated in experiment with rats by Greenough et als. (1993) p. 301-302 in Johnson, M.H.(1993).  They concluded that "merely making visual experience of a complex environment available to animals otherwise unable to interact with it has little behavioral effect." They reported that "several regions of the cerebral cortex were heavier and thicker in EC (Environmental Complexity) than in IC (Individual Cage) rats, and had larger neural cell bodies and more glial cells." Moreover "...the amount of surface available for synaptic connections, of up to 20% were reported in the upper cortex of rats reared in in EC versus IC environment from weaning to late adolescence" (Greenough et als. (1993) p. 302 in Johnson, M.H (1993). In an overview article by Moser (1999) there is mentioned experiments with mice where spesific training gave growth in Purkinjecells and visual cortex.

Complex environment and activity seem both to be crucial factors for cognitive growth. Psychological- and anatomical results seem to support each other. The results are rather general. We don't know with a great deal of precision what type of environment and what type of activity leads to what type of cognitive development.

For the blind child is it also important that he/she can feel safe when moving around.(Schneekloth,1989) Then the child dare to be more active and by that learn more.

"Little Room" (Nielsen, L. 1991) is built so the child shall get feedback and thus form spatial concepts. An underlying idea seems to be that the blind child can generalize to the world at large. This seems in line with Crattys (1971) ideas for developing spatial concepts in congenitally blind children.

Similar arguments may be found among people working with sighted children. To have a situation which is limited in scope but with a clear structure may be an advantage in certain circumstances. Turkewitz & Kenny in M.H. Johnson (ed.) (1993), p. 516 write; "Sensory stimulation during infancy may not only promote subsequent perceptual organization, but it may also substitute for perceptual organization during early infancy by providing an orderly world for the infant." The authors is writing this in connection with how an infant explores mothers face about 20 cm away so that the infant is getting simultan tactile and visual input.

No clear conclusion can be drawn from the studies reported above, but one may formulate two important factors contributing to the development of spatial aptitude from the research so far.

1: Physical activity contribute to learning in general and development of spatial ability in particular.

2: Restricted but well defined environment which allows feedback and activity contribute to the development of useful cognitive structures in general and spatial concepts in particular.

The present study may contribute to the understanding of point 1. It will further look at background factors which may be of importance. Parents attitudes and physical surroundings will be considered among many other factors. Those factors has also been studied in cross-cultural psychology. If results from the two areas point in the same directions it may contribute to better theories with greater impact.

Congenitally blind children are specially vulnerable for inappropriate stimulation from the environment. Consequently it it can often be easier to demonstrate
effects of environmental conditions in this group than in the population at large.Consequently, hypotheses developed in this area can be applied to the population
at large.


The tests and questionnaires were partially standardized tests, partly constructed by the author.

The sample consisted of 27 congenitally blind individuals, 9 individuals who became blind between 1 and 6 years old. These two groups went through all the tests and questionnaires. 72 partially sighted and those becoming blind as grown ups went through the three first tests described below.
The data was collected over a period of almost 4 years, from 1972 - 1976.

Description of the tests and questionnaires follow below.

2.1: Ohwaki-Koh Intelligence Test for the Blind.
The test requires that the subjects construct a pattern, presented on a piece of cardboard, with 4 (2x2), 9 (3x3) or 16 (4x4) cubes. The cubes have 4 different fabrics. One surface can either be fully covered with one type of fabric or two, with the border along the diagonal, forming two triangles. All the cubes are identical. The test correspond to Block Design in WAIS.

2.2: WAIS, verbal part
This part of the test consists of the following six subtests: 1: Information. 2: Reasoning. 3: Arithmetic. 4: Similarities
5: Digit Span. 6: Verbal Comprehension.

2.3: Wings "Standardized Tests of Musical Intelligence"
The test consists of 7 subtests, but only the 3 first were used. One reason is that their scoring is objective in the sense that the answer refer to physical properties of the stimuli. They are called: 1: Chord Analysis (detecting the number of notes played in a single chord) 2: Pitch Change (Detecting an alteration of a single note in a repeated chord). 3: Memory (Detecting an alteration in a note in a short melody (3-10 notes) when played a second time)

2.4: Memory for letters
The test were built up after model of "Digit Span" in WAIS.

2.5: Halsteads six forms
Task 1: Define or explain verbally the following forms: 1: Square. 2: Rectangle. 3: Semicircle. 4: Cross.
            5: Parallelogram. 6: Eclipse
Task 2: Identify the same 6 forms engraved in a wooden plate.
Task 3: The subjects were asked to identify the same 6 forms as pieces of wood in three sizes: a: The same size as in task 1. b: Half the size. c: Twice the size.

2.6: Natural forms:
The subjects were asked to give the form and size of the following 20 objects: 1: Door 2: Skating rink (oval/400 meter/one round ) 3: 100 meters of straight road 4: Window 5: Soccer field 6: A block in a city. 7: Table 8: House 9: Box of matches 10:Bus 11: Road intersection 12: Painting 13: Flag on a pole 14: Book 15: Cigarette box. 16: Tree 17: Ship (medium size/passenger, boat/ferry) 18: River 19: Airplane. 20: Horse.
    Eacxh test item were scored on  a 0-3 point scale by an assistant and myself after having decided on the criteria beforehand. A "0" was no answer at all or an entirely meaningless answer, "3" meant an answer of the same quality as a sighted average person.

2.7: Making a model of clay.
The subjects were given a piece of clay of 450 grams packed in a standard way. They were asked to make a human. There was no set time limit. The scoring was on a 1-5 point scale along the following dimensions: 1: Details 2: Proportion 3: Total evaluation. 4: Similarity to a human.

2.8: Mobility
The mobility score consisted of the following elements: 1: Range. Score:1-5. 2: Can read a map. 3:Anxious to ask for help.. 4: Getting to know a new place. 5. Using aids like the white cane, dog or a combination. Score: 1-3. Total evaluation of mobility: Score 1-5.

2.9: ADL.
They were asked 10 questions with respect to practical skills. Each question were scored on a 0-3 point scale. Max score: 30 points

2.10: Important background variables
a: Degree of of light perception: Some people classified as totally blind turned out to have had or had some light perception. This point was investigated thoroughly both by interviewing, switching the light in the room on and off or turning on a light in front of them. The following classification was made on this basis:
1 no light perception
2 can feel if the light is on or off under certain conditions
3 can see dimly the direction of light
4 can see outlines of forms
5 can vaguely see some forms

b: How much does light perception help?
1 no help, no light perception
2 keep direction
3 avoid objects in your pathway
4 keep direction and avoid objects in pathway
5 more help than 4 and 5

c: Surroundings. How favorable is the environment for moving around?
1= very little favorable environment, 5 very favorable environment. The subjects were questioned thoroughly about this point.

c: Parents' attitude with respect to what the child one was allowed to do.
1 = very strict, 2 rather strict, 3 normal, 4 rather liberal,  5 very liberal


Congenitally blind (CB) and partially sighted (PS)compared.
Matched with respect to verbal intelligence. N= 21 in each group.

                                          Wechler              Adult              Intelligence    Scale.                                                Verbal part
Subtest 1. Information Subtest 2. Reasooning Subtest 3. Math  Subtest  4 Similarity Subtest 5 Digit Span Subtest 6 Vocabulary WAIS
Verbal IQ
Owaki-Koh Spatial IQ Wings Musical IQ
Mean 7,2 4,1 6,8 6,7 11,2 6,6 81 47 52
SD 3,2 3,2 3,4 3,6 4,3 4,3 20 15 14
Sign. level t=1.9 *** **
Partially Sighted
Mean 7,1 6,0 6,7 7,4 9,4 6,0 81 84 36
SD 3,2 3,3 3,2 3,4 4,3 3,2 19 27 17
* = significant at 5% level,   ** = significant at 1% level,   *** = significant at 0.1% level

Wing, subtest 1 is called chord analysis, 2 is called pitch change and 3 memory.
The results above are showing the effect of congenital blindness.  Note the big difference
between the congenitally blind- and the controlgroup on Ohwaki-Koh.
Qwaki-Koh is a good yardstick of spatial ability.

a: Spatial aptitude is on the average close to a 8 years old. Other data show that 3 out of 27 had  a
spatial aptitude on the same level as a sighted or partially sighted person.

b: Echoic memory is better in the congenitally blind.

c: Musical aptitude is better in the congenitally blind

                                                            Degree of overprotection
Classification of  overprotectiont N Ohwaki-Koh 
WAIS  verbal IQ
Strict-overprotective 11 43 80
Medium 8 51  86
Free-little 8 67 110 
  The results above are showing the effect of the parents attitude with respect to
restricting the child's free movement. One may call it some form of overprotection.

      How favorable the environment is for free movement
Classification of  environ-
ment for free movement
N Ohwaki-Koh 
WAIS  verbal IQ
Poor 11 44 85
Medium 6 45  86
Good 10 66 101 
  The results above are showing the effect of  the physical environment.

Degree of light perception in 27 congenitally blind

  N Owaki-Koh
WAIS-verbal part

1.Inform.  2.Res.     3.Art.       4.Sim.       5.Dig.Span   6.Voc.      IQ         Mobiliy

No light perception.

See light on-off

See contours

9 42 53 6,6 3,4 6,0 5,8 11,9 5,3 77 2,9
11 52 53 9,1 6,1 7,5 8,2 11,4 9,4 91 2,8
7 67 46 10,6 9,6 11,6 11,0 13,6 12,1 109 4,0

Light perception does seem to have some effect, but there are many uncontrolled variables and the sample is small

                                                            VARIMAX FACTOR ANALYSIS

                     Factor loadings in a group of congenitally- and early blind. N = 36
Factor 1 Factor 2 Factor 5 Factor 6
VARIABLE Spatial Music G-factor Echoic memory
Environment for play (poor-good) .46 -.12 .18 -.11 
Parents attitude (Not so strict-strict) .42 .00  .51 -.14
Ohwaki-Koh. Spatial aptitude .68 .13 .61 .06 
Music, subtest 1. Chord analysis .15  .81  -.07  .19
Music, subtest 2. Pitch change -.10  .86 .05 .15
Music, subtest 3. Memory .04  .60 .04 .56
WAIS 2: Reasoning .34 -.01  .81  .29
WAIS 6: Vocabulary .24 .07 .78 .34
Weeks too early born -.37 .21 -.23 -.41
Object size .81 .08  .38 .03 
Object form .81 .05 .36 .17 
Make human of clay. Form .59 .09 .62 -.03
Mobility. Distance from home .78 -.32 .26 .18 
Digit span forward .02  .12 .04 .87
Digit span backwards .43 .27 .23 .71
Comment: Note that musical memory has almost equal loading on factor 2 and 6, that "digit span backwards" have
a clear loading on factor 1, the spatial factor, that factor 1 have considerable loading on variables relating to the
physical environment and parents attitude.

            Correlation's with Ohwaki-Koh. Congenitally- and early blind. N = 36


Information                         .71
Reasoning                           .67
Arithmetic                           .75
Similarities                          .62
Digit span                           .44
Vocabulary                         .59

Weeks too early born         -.36

Halsteads forms:
Form definition                    .72
Form identification               .69
Size                                     .51

"Natural forms"
Size: Small                          .61
""" Medium                         .61
"""" Big                               .76

Human model of clay.
Details                                 .71
Proportion                           .85
Map skill                             .74
Mobility                               .80

Forwards                             .34
Backwards                           .47

Digit span
Forwards                             .14
Backwards                           .54

Comments:  The fact the Owaki-Koh correlates highly with both practical skills as modeling clay and subtests
in WAIS justify to call it both a test of spatial ability and an intelligence test which is implied in the name
Owaki Koh Tactile Intelligence Test for the Blind.

                                                                                Echoic memory
                                                                    Correlations between memory tests

                                Music 3. Memory      WAIS 5 DigitSpan      Letter Forward         Letter Backward            Digit Forw ard         Digit Backward
Music 3 1.00
WAIS 5 .62 1.00 
Letter Forward .39 .70  1.00
Letter Backward .54 .75  .47 1.00
Digit Forward .47 .81  .68 .45 1.00 
Digit Backward .61 .93  .62 .77 .48  1.00

Results which will be added:
1: Showing that light vision affects spatial aptitude. Will be discussed in relation to the Motor-and "Visual Map" Theory.
2: That parents attitude plays a role. This fits in with cross-cultural research and the concepts field-dependence and
3: Physical surroundings seeems to play a role.
4: Vision up to 2-3 years seems to be of little help, while vision up to 5 years seems to play a role.
5: Congenitally blind seem to prosess auditory information better than partially sighted.

                                                   4: DISCUSSION
                                                                                Points which will will be discussed.

The Motor- and "Visual Map" Theory
There seems to be more evidence supporting the motor theory than the visual map theory
according to a MA by Arne Holthe (1976) thesis written on the basis of the same data as
this paper. The thesis is in Norwegian.

Field dependence- and independence in relation the strictness and overprotection by the parents.

The physical environment and its role both directly and indirectly. How can an optimal environment be created?
The role of a structured environment which give tactile feedback.

Congenitally blind and why they have a better auditory- and musical memory. What can be learnt and applied to
rearing and training of children generally. Bring in Piaget and Kaufmans book "Intelligent Testing with WISC-R".
Relate it to children who have poor concentration and learning difficulties.

Compare these studies with results from cross-cultural psychology.
In Ghanian culture the children are brought up more strictly than in Norway both with respect to physical
movement like rough games and psychologically (child should be aware of my sacrifice for him)

To the extent that cognitive structures can be influenced what are the consequences and what do we want.
For instance would it be an advantage to improve the spatial ability in the population if we want kids that
have better talent for math. Several, researcher, e.g. Luria claims it is a positive correlation between spatial
ability and mathematical ability. For further discussions see "CULTURES CONSEQUENCES at


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