Mental Mapping for the Visually Impaired

I move around pretty well if I do say so myself. Since this was our first 90-degree day of the summer, “the puppy girls” and I swam, but most, cooler days we walk. While my vision is not awful, it is not good and I really don’t see everything ahead of us. The girls and I get there and back using, in part, previous learning, much of which involves mental mapping.

What is a mental map?

Have you ever walked from the bed to the bathroom down a pitch-black hallway? You were using a mental map.

Also called cognitive mapping or mental models, mental maps are a type of mental representation that serves an individual to acquire, code, store, recall, and decode information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in their spatial environment.1 Practically speaking, mental mapping allows you to know the first door on the right is the hall closet and not the bathroom. Mental mapping also allows you to know it is a tight squeeze between the sink and the toilet and if you turn too quickly, the vanity is just tall enough to catch a hip and give you a nice bruise. Ouch!

How are mental maps made?

So how do we know so much about our upstairs hallway and bathroom? That’s easy: we have traveled that route thousands of times. It is, in fact, self-generated movement that builds mental maps.

Self-generated movement

It is self-generated movement clues that help to create mental maps. That means mental maps are created more efficiently when you are the one doing the moving instead of the one being moved. Mental maps are created better if you walk instead of drive for example. I would also venture to say they are better formed if you drive instead of ride. It is the interaction with your environment that counts.


The input for mental maps can come from all six senses. Six? Yep, I am including proprioception, your awareness of the position and movement of your body in space. Relative positions of objects can be used to help form mental maps. Directional concepts are also valuable.

Creating my mental map

So how do we form mental maps? I do it with a lot of walking. That is that self-generated movement we were talking about. When I walk I also get a better idea of space and distance. I am immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells and get a pretty good idea of how one thing in the environment relates to another. For example, I know the light-colored patch on the road after a rain is a wet spot and not a person. It is always before the same driveway and never changes distance relative to the big tree. Until I had that mental map, I would wonder who was standing on the road ahead of me!

But, hold on, the example I just gave involves vision! Yep. Absolutely.

Mental mapping for the visually impaired

In the world of the visually impaired, we really are the lucky ones when it comes to mobility and mental mapping. We have had vision and we know how it is done. We have been able to see the relationship of two objects in space without having to first relate them to our own bodies, for example. And we have been able to extend this understanding of how things relate to one another out into even larger spaces.

Perks of peripheral vision

Another advantage we with geographic atrophy have is we still have peripheral vision. We may not be seeing what is directly in front of us but we are able to see the larger picture around us. We are able to scan with peripheral vision and even get some idea of the terrain directly in front. This is valuable in making our mental maps. We are able to add the benefits of prior visual experience and peripheral vision to the other cues to form much more detailed mental maps than those formed by the congenitally blind.

The idea is to get moving now. Walk the places you know you will want to navigate even after your vision is worse. Form those mental maps. You just might save a few bruised hips later!

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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