Learning to Monitor Travel While Moving Along a Course

One of my students, Mike, was always frustrating me because he continually got lost even in areas where I was sure his environmental awareness was intact. I also knew that his orientation skills were adequate to the task. So why was he getting lost so often? When I began teaching students using the sequence outlined in this section, the reason for Mike's problem became clear.

I began with gaging initial position. I made him tell me exactly where he was in space, do a detailed orientation check. This he did easily. Then I had him tell me the route he was going to travel, the landmarks he would pass, and what the landmarks told him. Again he had no problem. He told me in detail where he was going, how far apart the landmarks were, and what he was going to do after passing each landmark. Then he set out on his journey.

About five steps into the trip, Mike began to tell me his latest obsession, and soon was waxing eloquent and getting majorly lost within the first minute of his travels. Mike's problem was that he failed to monitor his movement in space as he traveled. He should have been checking off the landmarks as he moved. He should have paid attention to the kinesthetic feeling, the muscle memory that told him how far he had moved through space. He should have positioned his body to the landmarks as he passed them so he wouldn't veer. He did none of those things.

We often say that our students get lost because they weren't paying attention. It is our role as teachers to remind them what it is they should be paying attention to. Failure to monitor movement while traveling is one of the more common reasons students get lost in space.

To move effortlessly through space without vision requires a high level of knowledge and skill. The following must be understood:

The student must understand the distinction between "orientation" and "goal orientation." Orientation is concerned solely with maintaining direction (maintaining a northerly route using a compass, for example). Goal orientation involves staying on course to reach a goal (that may involve several turns). Orientation, and goal orientation, are two separate skills, requiring two different strategies. Monitoring a route requires goal orientation.

The student must have a kinesthetic memory of a route so that he or she can determine if the time and distance traveled to reach a landmark have been exceeded, so that corrections can be made.

A student must know what to do if they get lost along a route or within a spatial layout to reorient themselves. This is the rule:

  1. Don't panic. Fear and anxiety make it difficult or impossible to monitor the environment (to perceive accurately or make good judgments)

  2. Stop moving. Don't change position and don't move.

  3. On a high conscious level, scan the area for auditory landmarks. Also notice any outstanding tactile or olfactory clues.

  4. Determine if any of the landmarks have a known message. These steps alone may result in reorientation. If not:

  5. Make a plan for exploring the area you are in. Establish landmarks where you are so you can return to this known spot if necessary; ie. establish initial position, do an orientation check. Decide on a short exploratory route to hunt for landmarks.

  6. Move. Search for landmarks in a small radius. If these landmarks are not helpful, expand the size of the search area.

  7. Ask for help if all else fails. Depending on the time available and circumstances, asking for help can fall anywhere within this rule. For students learning how to navigate, I don't allow asking for help until all the above steps have been attempted.


Notice that the very first step is "don't panic." There is a reason that this simple rule is in the primary position. Allow me to give a simple idea a complex explanation.

During evolution the human brain developed through three stages. These three stages are represented in the present brain of all humans. The spinal cord and a small bulb at the top of the spine called the medulla are called the lower (or reptilian) brain. This is a reflexive and automatic brain. It responds to danger, and it directs basic life functions like breathing, digestion, circulation, and reproduction. The reptilian brain keeps the body alive. The middle or mammalian brain sits on top of the medulla. It is the human limbic system. It added emotion and coordinated movement to the animal world. Both the reptilian and the mammalian brains are unconscious. The higher brain, the learning brain, is called the cerebral cortex. The learning brain solves problems, communicates, explores, remembers, and is aware of the world and itself. Between the middle mammalian brain and the higher learning brain is an area called the reticular activating system (RAS). RAS has an important function that all mobility specialists and blind travelers should know about; it is a toggle switch. It flips brain activity between a conscious, problem solving level (cortical brain), to the mammalian brain.

In his book "Emotional Intelligence," Daniel Goleman writes that there is a one synapse connection between the geniculate body in the thalamus to the amygdala in the limbic region of the mammalian brain. Early processing from both the vision system and the auditory system converge on the geniculate body and most fibers are passed on to cortical centers. What this means is that subconscious, very fast information goes to the limbic region (amygdala) of the brain before it has time to be processed cortically in the prefrontal lobes (which balance and or can override emotional responses). When the brain is "assaulted" by heavy duty emotional information, the response is powerful and immediate, resulting in actions that can occur before rational thought has time to monitor and balance the reaction. For a blind individual moving through space, especially outdoors in environmentally "dangerous" areas, this can be life threatening.

Here's the point: When the body is under severe stress, the reticular activating system shuts off the cortex (when it receives strong emotional signals from the limbic region). The student who then panics actually is incapable of thinking. In this state they might bolt out in front of a bus, or race headlong down an escalator, or make a sudden left hand turn into a crystal wine glass display. The point must be driven home. If you get disoriented or flat out lost in space, it is a natural human reaction to feel fear and panic. That's OK. Just remember to stop, quiet the body, remember the RAS, and take manual control of the system. Switch it back to the cortical level.

The mammalian brain can also operate on a non-conscious, non-emotional level when coordinated movements are occurring. We all have had the experience of walking around in a daydream state, on automatic pilot. Sighted individuals switch from the central visions conscious processing system, to the unconscious peripheral visions navigation system. It is possible to literally walk around in a fog, essentially asleep. It is important to know that blind students can be very good at gaging initial position, very skilled at articulating their plan of travel, listing all landmarks and their messages, but fail to monitor their movements while they travel because they switch to the mammalian brain. Problem solving, being aware and alert, does not stop once the journey begins. I have seen students (like the story of Mike above) line up correctly, relate to me in great detail where they will go and how, and then I've watched while they march right past the first landmark into unknown space.

I require that my students actively check in with the landmarks as they move, especially when they are learning new routes. I try to keep the learning process on a highly conscious plane. The reason that students fail to monitor their travel, even after setting up and planning correctly, is that they fail to check in with every significant landmark.


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