Macular Degeneration and Training the Other Senses
For those living with macular degeneration, changes in vision can be very stressful. One common worry is learning how to navigate in a world that looks slightly different. Looking for doorways, moving around obstacles, and traveling in unfamiliar areas may require new strategies. 1
However, the world is full of “non-visual” information you can use. This non-visual information can be picked up by your other senses. Our brains continue to grow and learn throughout our lifetimes. The brain can adapt to changing vision by strengthening these senses.1,2
How does vision loss affect the brain?
The brain is a “plastic” organ. This means it can continue to grow and change as we experience new things. Plasticity explains the changes in the brain that help us learn. The brain is also divided into different areas. Each area contains neurons, or cells that send and receive signals, that control a specific function or area of the body.
Each of our 5 senses is tied to a specific area of the brain. This area takes in all the information around us and makes sense of it. However, studies show that when there is sensory loss, that area of the brain changes. Those cells will now start to act differently.2
These brain changes can make up for vision or other sensory loss. Another sense can be improved to make up for vision loss. The cells that once worked to help us see can now take on a new “job.” Many times, this new job involves other senses like touch or hearing. This allows us to adapt when our world changes.2
How can I use my other senses?
Just like any other skill, you can “train” your other senses. Ways to practice using your senses in new ways include:1,3
Use common sounds to help orient you. Noises like traffic or the hum of household appliances can act as landmarks.
Ask yourself where the sound is coming from. Is it close or far? In front of you or behind? From the left or the right?
Try echolocation. This helps you detect the location of objects by their reflected sound. Make a quiet clicking noise and see what information you can learn from it. As the noise bounces off objects, you can get an idea of how close things are. You can also find out about the texture of things. For example, sound bouncing off soft furniture is different from sound bouncing off a hard table.
Placing your hand on objects as you move throughout an area is a common way to map a room. However, touch can be used in many more ways.
Pay attention to what is under your feet. Carpet, grass, and concrete all feel different. That can help you determine when you leave a room or step off the sidewalk.
Does the temperature feel the same all over your body? Perhaps you feel a breeze or the heat of the sun against your skin.
Kinesthesia is your ability to tell where your body is in space. It also can help you keep your balance. It is what helps you predict how far the next stair is even if you cannot see it.
Your guide’s arm or a cane can act as an extension of your body. Their position can give you information about slopes or uneven ground like curbs.
You can also use kinesthesia to judge how far away something is from you.
As you continue to practice these skills, your senses may improve. You can use these techniques to form a detailed mental map of the area around you, even if you may not have been there before. This can also help you form a mental map of a new person. Using these tips, you may be able to figure out the person’s height, age, and other features. 1
If you have questions about how to train your senses, speak to your doctor. They may be able to refer you to an orientation and mobility (O&M) specialist. These are specialists who are trained to help those with vision loss regain their confidence to navigate the world around them. 1
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