People Really Do Walk in Circles When Lost

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August 20, 2009—A new study finds that people naturally walk in circles when their sense of direction is lost. Researchers had people walk in the desert and through a forest.

© 2009 National Geographic (AP)

Unedited Transcript

A familiar legend is that when people get lost in the woods, they walk in circles.

Now, according to research conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tuebingen, Germany, this is a natural human behavior.

SOUNDBITE (English) Jan Souman, Max Planck Institute: "What we found was that people do really walk in circles. So that has been like a myth, if you want to, for a long time. People reported on it in all kinds of stories, in television shows, in books, but no one really ever measured whether it is true, whether people really walk in circles if they get lost. And that's what we did. So we sent people into the desert, we sent people into a big forest area and we measured their walking trajectories with GPS and, in fact, they did walk in circles."

The research focused on nine people: 6 walking in a forest, and 3 in the Saharan desert in Tunisia. The people all tended to go in circles and /or veer off a straight line.

SOUNDBITE (English) Jan Souman, Max Planck Institute: "When we started the study we didn't really believe that people really walk in circles. So, what we thought was that people would do something random, like, if they don't know their way, they maybe all of a sudden go left and sometimes they all of a sudden turn right and just by chance they might end up in the same place again. I don't think they walked in circles but they actually did something completely random. And that's actually what we found in the desert. In the desert, people who walked there pretty much did something random, they didn't walk in circles they just went generally in the same direction, but then left, right, left, right. So then we went to the forest to get more data and there people actually did walk in circles and so we were really surprised that people did walk in circles. "

With a blindfold on and ear plugs, people did all kinds of things.

SOUNDBITE (English) Jan Souman, Max Planck Institute: "With the blindfolded walking, there were no overall patterns. People did all sorts of things. There was one person who always walked in circles to the left. Then someone else sometimes went to the left, sometimes went to the right, sometimes did a kind of a zig-zag course. So it's really hard to find a common denominator."

A young woman who took part in the experiment says it was difficult to sense direction wearing a blindfold.

SOUNDBITE (English) Lou Van Dam, Study Participant: "So at one point I noticed that the sun, I mean, you feel a bit of where the warmth is, but I couldn't make any sense of it. I mean you just feel it changing and you can't make any sense out of it."

While the sample size is small, and further studies will be needed, the researchers say the findings can be used to help map how the human brain sorts sensory stimuli from sight and hearing to help guide people.

And the lead researcher says if youre headed to remote areas, DONT trust your senses; take a GPS and a compass.

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