Why does my spatial awareness suck?
September 18, 2011 5:55 AM   Subscribe

Why does my spatial awareness suck?

I'm in a Master's program in Orientation and Mobility and part of the training requires that we alternate being blindfolded and using the white cane and being the teacher instructing the blindfolded student. While we are only being graded on how well we teach, not on how well we travel under blindfold, it would certainly help my fellow students if I didn't get caught up in driveways, bushes, street crossings, etc. and then totally lack understanding of how I got there and how to get out. It's very disorienting to think "I'm walking in a straight line" and then bump into a car in a driveway. But instead of accepting that I veered, my brain starts trying to figure out how I got there.

Theres one other person in class who is as terrible as I am as a "blind traveler" and it surprises me that the two of us stink. The one thing we have in common is that we are both dancers - she was a dance teacher/performer and I was a dancer in a semi- pro performance group. Wouldn't that skill require good spatial awareness, or does it depend on sight? What other skills require spatial awareness and how can I shut off the part of my brain that tells me I'm heading north when clearly I've veered off and I'm in the wrong direction?
posted by Sal and Richard to Science & Nature (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Well, there was a recent study that found that video game use significantly improved spatial cognition. So maybe start playing some first person shooters on the weekends?

Definitely the first time I've ever recommended someone starts playing video games...
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:13 AM on September 18, 2011

I don't know if there's anything you'd find useful but did you see this FPP?
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:31 AM on September 18, 2011

Well, maybe since dancers are trained to visually spot you're ignoring other cues (sound and feel of what you're walking on and so on). Or maybe it's just a coincidence. But isn't the point that it's hard and that's why blind people need you guys to teach them? I bet your fellow students learn more about teaching from teaching you than they do from teaching someone who's naturally good at it already.
posted by anaelith at 6:39 AM on September 18, 2011

Here's a thought - maybe you and the other dancer are actually much better guides than the others. When you are blindfolded you seem worse due to the inferior assistance.
posted by davey_darling at 7:09 AM on September 18, 2011

I would try to start a discussion with your classmates and teachers about what's happening to you when you get disoriented and talk about how to help people who get similarly disoriented. Don't try to fix it by yourself; make it a teaching moment for everyone. You're in this program to learn how to work with people, some of whom will be, like you, "bad" at blind traveling. You may actually be uniquely qualified to instruct others, since you really understand how difficult it can be to stay oriented when your brain is accustomed to relying primarily on visual cues.

This is the time in your careers when you need to practice the skill of helping people who have a wide array of skill levels at spatial orientation. In essence, your "problem" is really a way to help you and your classmates improve your skills so that you can work with people effectively when it really counts.
posted by decathecting at 9:04 AM on September 18, 2011

Best answer: I think, as anaelith suggests, that this is a direct result of being a dancer.

When you're blindfolded, or blind, your inner ears function as an inertial guidance system, by virtue of their capacity to detect and measure acceleration.

But there's a real downside to this ability. When the signals from the inner ear are inconsistent or chaotic, as they are for astronauts, you get something like space sickness, or as they are for beginning dancers, who commonly suffer from debilitating dizziness.

But dancers and most astronauts get over it. In fact, one particularly resistant cosmonaut attributed his hardiness to training in classical ballet, and choreographer Kitsou Dubois has attempted to use dance techniques to protect astronauts and cosmonauts from space sickness.

Your experience and the experience of your dancer colleague seem to imply that spotting entails semi-permanently turning off inner ear inertial navigation and replacing it with purely visual orientation, which is very surprising to me.

I bet you could turn it back on, but I don't know how, and the exercise you currently doing looks like as good a candidate for a technique as any.

One other possibility for turning it back on occurs to me. As the space sickness link says:

One understanding of motion sickness is that nausea is pro-survival evolutionary adaptation, because the sensory stimulation of a maladapted high acceleration environment that the body is not accustomed to is recognized by the brain as being similar to the sensory conflict from eating a poisonous plant, in which case vomiting is a helpful reaction.

So you might be able to resurrect your inertial system by deliberately ingesting something which would make you vomit, such as syrup of ipecac, but I wouldn't want to.

Incidentally, a fascinating old comment from Omiewise points to another group besides space travelers who might get something out of dance training:

As an aside, but because it's something I never fail to think about when I read anything about Gallaudet, when I was in High School my school was in the same sports league as Gallaudet HS, and the cc runners for some reason could really run down hill. All of their runners just friggin' tore down hills with a kind of abandon that none of the other runners from other schools acheived. Because of the language barrier I never was able to discover if it was due to some special bit of coaching, or something to do with inner ear stuff, or what, but it was consistent across the whole team.
posted by jamjam at 12:55 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure that your own ability blindfolded actually has much to do with your guiding ability. If you're very attuned to your own body in space and in motion, the "directions" of your guide might be contrary to how you think about moving, etc.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:38 PM on September 18, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the great link, bonobothegreat!
posted by Sal and Richard at 8:50 PM on September 18, 2011

Because of what jamjam describes above my Shifu would have us practice forms in the dark regularly. It's shocking at first when you realize just how much you've come to rely on visual feedback.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:50 PM on September 19, 2011

« Older Bodyscanners are this good?   |   I thought this was a developed country Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.