Background: Spatial ability is vital for human survival and development. However, the relationship between large-scale and small-scale spatial ability remains poorly understood. To address this issue from a novel perspective, we performed an activation likelihood estimation (ALE) meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies to determine the shared and distinct neural bases of these two forms of spatial ability. Methods: We searched Web of Science, PubMed, PsycINFO, and Google Scholar for studies regarding "spatial ability" published within the last 20 years (January 1988 through June 2018). A final total of 103 studies (Table 1) involving 2,085 participants (male = 1,116) and 2,586 foci were incorporated into the meta-analysis. Results: Large-scale spatial ability was associated with activation in the limbic lobe, posterior lobe, occipital lobe, parietal lobe, right anterior lobe, frontal lobe, and right sub-lobar area. Small-scale spatial ability was associated with activation in the parietal lobe, occipital lobe, frontal lobe, right posterior lobe, and left sub-lobar area. Furthermore, conjunction analysis revealed overlapping regions in the sub-gyrus, right superior frontal gyrus, right superior parietal lobule, right middle occipital gyrus, right superior occipital gyrus, left inferior occipital gyrus, and precuneus. The contrast analysis demonstrated that the parahippocampal gyrus, left lingual gyrus, culmen, right middle temporal gyrus, left declive, left superior occipital gyrus, and right lentiform nucleus were more strongly activated during large-scale spatial tasks. In contrast, the precuneus, right inferior frontal gyrus, right precentral gyrus, left inferior parietal lobule, left supramarginal gyrus, left superior parietal lobule, right inferior occipital gyrus, and left middle frontal gyrus were more strongly activated during small-scale spatial tasks. Our results further indicated that there is no absolute difference in the cognitive strategies associated with the two forms of spatial ability (egocentric/allocentric). Conclusion: The results of the present study verify and expand upon the theoretical model of spatial ability proposed by Hegarty et al. Our analysis revealed a shared neural basis between large- and small-scale spatial abilities, as well as specific yet independent neural bases underlying each. Based on these findings, we proposed a more comprehensive version of the behavioral model.
Keywords: activation likelihood estimation; behavioral model; large-scale spatial ability; meta-analysis; small-scale spatial ability.