When lost or disoriented, people really do walk in circles

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By tracking humans as they wandered in the forest, desert and blindfolded through a giant field, scientists determined that there is some truth to the popular belief—when people are lost, we actually do walk in circles.

It has long been common perception that people tend to meander in orbits when disoriented, and in fact, scientists have even come up with a couple of theories to explain why. One holds that an imbalance of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain’s hemispheres can bias us favor turning in one direction—à la Derek Zoolander. (“I can’t turn left!”) Another possibility is that humans tend to have one leg longer—or stronger—than the other, and that, over time this discrepancy leads to an incremental bias in the opposite direction.

Yet, until now there has been no systematic confirmation that we do wander in circles when lost. In a study published in the September 29 issue of the journal Current Biology, a team of researchers from Germany, Canada and France put that common belief to the test, with some fascinating results. “Our data provide the first empirical evidence that humans actually do tend to walk in circles when traversing unfamiliar terrain without reliable directional references,” they write.

When people had the sun or moon overhead, they were much more capable of walking straight—particularly in a forest setting where visual landmarks likely also helped. Yes, as soon as it got cloudy or dark without a glowing orb to guide them, people showed a clear tendency to eventually walk in loops.

To determine how study subjects would fare with no visual cues, the researchers tested a group of people by placing them blindfolded in a gigantic field and instructing them to walk straight. While the participants had some success, after a while they would inevitably begin to veer off course, and occasionally break into a series of small circles—only 66 feet (20 meters) across. In the end, the researchers concluded, without any gadgetry, visual cues or other directional aids, humans have trouble moving too far from where they started. “[O]n average, people will not travel more than 330 feet (100 meters) from their starting point when using only body cues to guide their walking direction, regardless of how long they walk,” they write. “Without the use of an external directional reference, humans (like any animal) are not able to maintain a fixed course.”

The scientists did rule out the likelihood that our orbital wanderings are due to an imbalance in leg strength or length. They measure the strength of participants legs compared with one another, and outfitted them with shoes that had soles of different thickness. But even when these variables were taken into account, they didn’t correlate with any bias to favor one direction when walking. Instead, the researchers think, it is our inability to maintain a fixed sense of “straight ahead” amid the sensory confusion of a new and unfamiliar place, and that, what abilities we do have to stay on track—using the sun or landmarks for cues—might be thwarted in times of crisis, as when someone gets lost in the wilderness.