Scientists show that people really walk in circles when lost (w/ Video)

Aug 20, 2009
Video screenshot (see below).

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists in the Multisensory Perception and Action Group at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, led by Jan Souman and Marc Ernst, have now presented the first empirical evidence that people really walk in circles when they do not have reliable cues to their walking direction.

Their study, published today in the journal , examined the walking trajectories of people who walked for several hours in the Sahara desert (Tunisia) and in the Bienwald forest area (Germany).

The scientists used the (GPS) to record these trajectories. The results showed that participants were only able to keep a straight path when the sun or moon was visible. However, as soon as the sun disappeared behind some clouds, people started to walk in circles without even noticing it.

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Speaking about the study, Jan Souman said: "One explanation offered in the past for walking in circles is that most people have one leg longer or stronger than the other, which would produce a systematic bias in one direction. To test this explanation, we instructed people to walk straight while blindfolded, thus removing the effects of vision. Most of the participants in the study walked in circles, sometimes in extremely small ones (diameter less than 20 metres)."

However, it turned out that these circles were rarely in a systematic direction. Instead, the same person sometimes veered to the left, sometimes to the right. Walking in circles is therefore not caused by differences in leg length or strength, but more likely the result of increasing uncertainty about where straight ahead is. "Small random errors in the various sensory signals that provide information about walking direction add up over time, making what a person perceives to be straight ahead drift away from the true straight ahead direction," according to Souman.

Walking trajectories in the Bienwald forest (Germany). Participants started walking from two different starting positions (red dots). The participants KS, PS and RF walked on a cloudy day. When SM walked, the sun was visible (except for the first 15 minutes). Image: Jan Souman, Google Earth

Marc Ernst, Group Leader at the MPI for , added: "The results from these experiments show that even though people may be convinced that they are walking in a straight line, their is not always reliable. Additional, more cognitive, strategies are necessary to really walk in a straight line. People need to use reliable cues for walking direction in their environment, for example a tower or mountain in the distance, or the position of the sun." In future research, Souman and Ernst will focus on how people use these and various other sources of information to guide their walking direction.

For this, the scientists will use state-of-the-art Virtual Reality equipment, including a revolutionary new omnidirectional treadmill ("Cyber-carpet", see video). Participants will try to find their way through a virtual forest, while walking in place on the treadmill and never leaving the laboratory. This will allow the scientists to have much more control over the information available to participants, making it possible to better test specific explanations, for example how use the position of the sun to orient themselves.

More information: www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822(09)01479-1

Source: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (news : web)

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User comments : 13

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Alexa
5 / 5 (2) Aug 20, 2009
Maybe it's not mistake, but optimal maze strategy evolved by evolution.
finitesolutions
5 / 5 (1) Aug 20, 2009
If one walks straight ,abstracting the oceans, will end up in the same place. The planet is round! Sail straight in the southern ocean at 60 degrees and you will end up where you started. The best computer programs also end up where they start: while(1){}; The straightest objects we produced so far are the deep space probes.
earls
not rated yet Aug 20, 2009
I believe Alexa hit the nail on the head - walking in circles allows you to keep some semblance of familiar territory while still increasing your knowledge of the unknown.

Their "one leg longer than the other" theory seems rather childish.
algaefuel
5 / 5 (2) Aug 20, 2009
They should try the experiment on blind people. Since blind people don't use visual guides, maybe they would be better at going straight.
El_Nose
not rated yet Aug 20, 2009
algaefuel -- that is a very intutitive and straightforward test of the hypothesis.

I however question these people's inner ear and whether we can find a bias in their overall internal balancing system.
h0dges
not rated yet Aug 20, 2009
I guess this is the true 'random walk'.
Alexa
5 / 5 (1) Aug 20, 2009
maybe they would be better at going straight
It's well known, many blind people can navigate through echoes like bats, so if we close their ears, we should get the same result.

http://tinyurl.com/mdqoyd
KBK
not rated yet Aug 21, 2009
OK, for shits and giggles and scientific curiosity..we are now going to put blind people...with earplugs in...in the middle of the desert...at night.
ArtflDgr
not rated yet Aug 21, 2009
humans are territorial, and in the way north, when findnig new land you got to keep the amount you could walk in a day.

the point being is that territorial nomads following one person will make daisy circles that will bring them back home.

if the check the size of the circle and the time it takes to walk it, they will find a correlaction to hunting and returning home.

not to odd is it?

also, children who didnt do this when wandering off would not naturally return... they would walk off, and just keep going... (and even with the return they get lost).

its not so hard to get if you havent grown up in a human vegitable patch were we dont even know ourselves any more.
getgoa
1 / 5 (1) Aug 21, 2009
The reason to me why a person would walk in a circle is purely biblical, the bird during the time of Noe found land for the generation of humans to come during the flood-- the bird circles to return and an angel has rings?
jgreen
5 / 5 (1) Aug 21, 2009
When in danger or in doubt,
run in circles, scream and shout.
Gyrxiur
not rated yet Aug 23, 2009
Look here: http://www.mediaf...ios14tod This was my walk through forest, I wanted to go straight, but I did lot of circles and turned to right...
cjesu
not rated yet Aug 25, 2009
maybe they would be better at going straight
It's well known, many blind people can navigate through echoes like bats, so if we close their ears, we should get the same result.


blind people have enhanced perceptions of hearing and even other senses that account for their loss of sight



http://tinyurl.com/mdqoyd

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