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Surprising Science

Do Lost People Really Walk in Circles? Apparently So.

Finally, something from the movies that actually jibes with science: when people are lost and have no landmarks for direction, they walk in circles.

There’s only one sound scientific way to test this hypothesis: handing a bunch of people GPS trackers and dropping them off in the middle of nowhere. So that’s what scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen did—deposited one group of subjects in the Sahara Desert, another in a German forest. 

If the sun or the moon was out, no problem; participants could keep to a more or less straight line. But with no heavenly bodies and no other recognizable landmarks to guide them, the study subjects simply wandered around aimlessly without realizing they were doing it.

So why do we do it? Is that we all favor one leg over the other and start veering off in that direction? The researchers thought this might be the case, and beyond the testing in the desert and the forest, they also blindfolded some subjects to see if they could stay straight.

However, rather than favoring only one direction, people would wander one way and then the other, and end up nowhere. The researchers hypothesize that the real cause of walking in circles is simply losing track of “straight ahead” and overcompensating.

So if you’re hiking around in the desert—or planning to appear in a horror movie—please, take a compass. Your senses deceive you.


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