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Walking in Circles

“The belief that people walk in circles when lost is mainly based on anecdotal evidence and has never been studied systematically in a real desert or forest.” (Current Biology, August 20th 2009)

It is a common scenario: when we get lost in the wilderness, we wind up walking in circles.  Much to our dismay, at some point we’ll revisit our tracks and feel despair that we’ll never make it out of this loop and back to civilization.   The German research scientist, Jan Souman, proves it this time:  Humans do walk crooked when lost.  The empirical data confirms that humans have a tendency to not only walk lopsided but to self-navigate within a loop when lost.

Favoring Loops in Poor Visibility

walking in circles
Walking trajectories in Bienwald Forest (Germany) by Jan Souman, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics.

Participants started walking from two different starting positions (red dots) and were instructed to walk straight. The blue trajectory shows what happens when participants walked when visibility was low, as on a cloudy day (participants PS, KS, RF) and the yellow line (participant SM) on a clear day, when the sun was visible.

The illustration shows that the blue line participants were not able to walk in a straight line and made several turns. The yellow line participant (SM) was able to walk a far distance in a relatively straight line.  From this analysis, we can conclude that weather is a strong determinant of our ability to navigate linearly. This also explains why we tend to make circles when we are lost in a dense forest.

Some of the theories to explain why we tend to walk in circles when we do not have access to reliable cues (Camping & Wilderness Survival by Pat Tawrell),

Why We Navigate in Loops :

  • We are all lopsided caused by a difference in leg length. This deformity causes us to veer off course when walking normally.  Slow Down! The deviation is greater when walking at a faster pace and when walking with the head bent forward (carrying a backpack).
  • We have a dominant eye that misaligns to a focused point when both eyes are open. To test the ocular dominance theory, extend one arm and point with your index finger at a distant object with both eyes open. Now alternate closing each eye to determine which eye is viewing the object (this is your dominant eye).
  • The human tendency to “edge away” from environmental obstacles such as wind, slope of a hill, rain, sun in the face, cliff. If we sense an obstacle in our path, we tend to veer off course by taking the path of least resistance.
  • The human tendency to favor making right turns past obstacles. We have a dominant brain hemisphere, hand, and eye, so why not a directional bias as well? Our own insight leads us to think that the lateral bias for a right turn can be explained by our preference to make our environment “right”: driving on the right side, walking on the right side, clockwise race tracks, right side entrances, the high percentage of humans that are right handed, etc.
  • The weather. We find it easier to walk straight on a bright day when the sun is visible and tend to walk round and round when visibility is poor – cloudy, hazy, foggy, dark, in a dense tree covered forest.
  • Lack of a visual reference point. Even if the sun is blazing down on us, we find it difficult to walk straight in vast open spaces such as deserts or plains without 1 or 2 fixed reference points.  Humans need to rely on visual cues for navigation.  Our internal compass is not accurate.

This video by NPR shows what happens when humans try to walk straight while blindfolded.

There are a few things you can do sans blindfold to orient yourself (Camping & Wilderness Survival by Pat Tawrell),

How to Walk Straight Without Visual References:

  • Find two landmarks ahead or behind you and line them up. Check them every so often as you walk to ensure you are still lined up with them. This tip works well in the treeless open.
  • If you can only find one landmark, make a second landmark. Make a second landmark by placing a stick on a hill, making a symbol in the dirt, building a rock/stick formation, or make a small smoke fire (flat surface such as sand, plain, or desert).
  • Noise Destination. A noise such as a waterfall or a river can be chosen as a destination. Verify the direction by cupping your ears and rotate your head horizontally. This will give you the direction of the highest sound intensity.

It seems obvious that the probability of walking straight versus not straight will be reduced without a visible fixed start and end landmark. Just consider all the ways one can walk crooked versus not. Nonetheless, this theory is an interesting one to explore. Besides, you can never over prepare for that time when you find yourself in a remote area without access to navigational tools or visible focal points.

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1 thought on “Walking in Circles”

  • Hi there! This is my first visit to your blog!
    We are a team of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community in the same
    niche. Your blog provided us useful information to work on. You have done
    a wonderful job!

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