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What is the Spatial Planning test?
What is the Spatial Planning test?
Mike Battista avatar
Written by Mike Battista
Updated over a week ago

You find yourself in a tricky situation. Can you plan your way out of it?

This test measures your brain's ability to plan ahead. A tree-shaped frame appears on the screen with 9 numbered balls slotted onto the branches. Rearrange the balls so that they are slotted onto the branches in numerical order, making as few moves as possible. You can only take balls that are not blocked in, and you can only move one ball at a time. Click the ball you'd like to move to pick it up, then click again where you'd like to move it (dragging the ball will not work).

Optimizing Performance

In this test:

  • Accuracy does matter; the number of moves counts toward your score. If you take too many moves, the problem will be taken away and you will be given another one.

  • Speed does matter; you have 3 minutes to solve as many problems as you can.

So to get maximum points, try to solve the problems in as few moves as possible, as quickly as possible.

Spatial Planning demonstration video

Performance tips:

  • Green balls are in the right place and red balls are not. You may need to move both red and green balls to solve the problems.

  • You cannot leave gaps in the frame.

  • Concentration is key. We have found that people who are good at tasks like this are able to focus their gaze on relevant parts of the screen while ignoring the irrelevant parts (Hodgson et al., 2000).

Performance Categories

Your score on this test contributes to:

  • Your memory score (about half).

  • Your reasoning score (about half).

The contribution of each test to each performance category is based on a "factor analysis" that looked at how tests tend to clump together when measuring a massive set of data. The results were published in Neuron in 2012 (Hampshire, Highfield, Parkin, & Owen, 2012). The exact contribution of each test to each performance category may change as more data is collected.

The Science Behind the Spatial Planning Test

The Spatial Planning Test, also known as the Hampshire Tree Task, is an adaptation of the Tower of London / Tower of Hanoi test (Shallice, 1982; Simon, 1975), a widely used clinical neuropychological tool for assessing planning abilities. Researchers have been using this task to investigate the cognitive and neural processes involved in planning for nearly 20 years (e.g., Owen et al., 1990).

The test measures your planning, or forward-thinking, abilities. In psychology, "planning" refers to the steps that you go through in order to achieve a goal. The cognitive processes underlying these skills are surprisingly complex; first you must mentally create representations of both the current situation (where I am now) and the goal (where I want to be), then you must work out how to link these representations, and finally, you must transform the current state into the desired goal state (Unterrainer & Owen, 2006). While doing this, you must mentally search though possible solutions and evaluate their effectiveness. The Spatial Planning Test really taxes your forward thinking skills because the correct solution is often not the most obvious, and has to be generated by carefully considering the rules of the task.

Neuroimaging methods such as positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have looked at how the brain activates when you are planning (e.g. Owen et al., 1996; Dagher et al., 1999). The frontal cortex plays a central role in planning the solutions to problems, but does not act alone; rather it operates effectively through complex interactions with other structures.

Spatial Planning in the Real World

Perhaps more than any other test, you will encounter real-life situations that tap into the exact same skills required in Spatial Planning. From fitting IKEA boxes in your car to actually assembling the furniture, daily life often involves planning the movement of objects in tight spaces or with specific rules.

Lifestyle can affect how well you do at these tasks. For example, exercise has been linked with performance. One study (Chang et al., 2011) found that a single bout of moderate-to-high intensity aerobic exercise improved scores on the task. In particular, it lowered the number of moves and increased the number of correct moves. Speed and errors were the same, so improvement was not just due to pumped-up participants doing the task faster. Try some physical activity before your next attempt.

Sleep deprivation can also affect your scores. Research (Horne, 1988) found that well-rested people got better at the task with practice, taking less time to plan their solutions to the problems. People who went through a single night of sleep deprivation, however, got worse, adding almost 30 seconds to their planning time. Get some sleep!

As mentioned, the frontal lobe plays a role in planning, and we have shown that patients with frontal lobe damage require more moves and produce fewer perfect solutions when undertaking tasks like the Spatial Planning Test (Owen et al., 1990). Behaviourally, these patients were more impulsive, tending to start the task before thinking of a correct solution. Even when impulsivity was prevented, planning time in these front-lobe-impaired patients was much greater than in healthy volunteers (Owen et al., 1995).

What about everyday stress? The good news is that we could not find evidence that the Spatial Planning Test is affected by stress. This test might be a good one to distract yourself with when stress is higher, without compromising performance. Of course, we will be looking at (anonymous) data to see if stress has any relationship with performance in a larger population.


  • Chang, Y., Tsai, C., Hung, T., So, E. C., Chen, F., & Etnier, J. L. (2011). Effects of acute exercise on executive function: a study with a Tower of London Task. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 33, 847-865. Download PDF

  • Dagher, A., Owen, A.M., Boecker, H. Brooks, D.J. (1999). Mapping the network for planning: a correlational PET activational study with the Tower of London task. Brain, 122, 1973-1987. Download PDF

  • Hampshire, A., Highfield, R. R., Parkin, B. L., & Owen, A. M. (2012). Fractionating human intelligence. Neuron, 76, 1-13. Download PDF

  • Hodgson, T. L., Baja, A., Owen, A. M., Kennard, C. (2000). The strategic control of gaze direction in the Tower of London Task. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 12, 894-907. Download PDF

  • Horne, J. A. (1988). Sleep loss and "divergent" thinking ability. Sleep, 11, 528-536. Download PDF

  • Owen A. M., Downes, J. D., Sahakian, B. J., Polkey, C. E., & Robbins T. W. (1990). Planning and spatial working memory following frontal lobe lesions in man. Neuropsychologia, 28, 10211034. Download PDF

  • Owen, A. M., Sahakian, B. J., Hodges, J. R., Summers, B. A., Polkey, C. E., & Robbins, T.W. (1995). Dopamine-dependent fronto-striatal planning deficits in early Parkinson's disease. Neuropsychology, 9, 126-140. Download PDF

  • Owen, A.M., Doyon, J., Petrides, M., & Evans, A. (1996). Planning and spatial working memory: a positron emission tomography study in humans. European Journal of Neuroscience, 8, 353-364. Read Abstract

  • Shallice, T. (1982). Specific impairments of planning. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (Series B), B298, 199-209. Download PDF

  • Simon, H.A. (1975). The functional equivalence of problem solving skills. Cognitive Psychology, 7, 268-288. Read Abstract

  • Unterrainer, J. M., & Owen, A. M. (2006). Planning and problem solving: from neuropsychology to functional neuroimaging. Journal of Physiology Paris, 99, 308-317. Download PDF

  • Williams-Gray, C. H., Hampshire, A., Robbins, T., Owen, A. M., & Barker, R. A. (2007). Catechol O-Methyltransferase val158met genotype influences frontoparietal activity during planning in patients with Parkinson's disease. Journal of Neuroscience, 27, 4832-4838. Download PDF

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