Do We Walk In Circles When Lost In The Forest?
is an old story, only recently proven by scientific research, that people who get lost in the forest walk in circles, often
crossing their own paths, when they believe they are moving in a straight line.
happened to many ardent hunters and a number of people who simply get disoriented while strolling in a forest. My wife’s
brother, Wayne, became lost while deer hunting in a forested area not far from his home and did not find his way out until
he spent a night in the woods. Wayne knew the stories and chose to sit down in a sheltered area and wait for the sun to guide
him once it rose in the east.
my own adventures in large wooded areas near my home in Michigan and cannot recall ever being so lost I could not find a way
to a way back to a stream, road or pathway that brought me to civilization. I do recall surprise at where I emerged from the
forest . . . sometimes far from where I thought I would be.
do we lose all sense of direction when in a forest . . . or for that matter, in any area where everything looks the same?
Examples would be on a raft at sea, a large mall parking lot, or in the middle of a desert.
at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany recently examined this phenomenon and reported their findings
in a recent issue of Current Biology.
attached GPS locators to volunteers and then sent them walking for several hours in the Sahara desert in Tunisia and the Bienwald
forest, Germany. They found that the walkers could maintain a straight line when they could orient themselves with the sun
or moon. Sailors who are trained in navigation also use the stars. But when the sky was clouded and these markers were removed,
the walkers always walked in circles. Sometimes they veered left and sometimes right, but always in circles.
subjects were blindfolded in additional testing, they moved in extremely tight circles, sometimes moving in an area no larger
than a normal basketball court.
is, why does this happen?
explanation was that one leg is longer or stronger than the other, making the walker tend to swing in one direction or the
other when they believe they are following a straight line.
L. Souman, who was involved in the research and studies multisensory perception, noted that when normal visual guides like
the sun or moon are removed, the brain “appears to be lacking a fundamental visual cue to help make sense of the jumble
of other data it is receiving.
brain has different sources of information for almost everything,” Souman said. He explained that there is a complicated
interplay of “images flowing over the retina, the sense of acceleration
or turning in the inner ear, even how the muscles and bones are moving that are combined in the brain to give a sense of where
the body is going.” He said that to make sense of it all, however, a person needs certain types of “absolute cues”
to help establish directions.
a British blogger whose columns in a page marked “Not Exactly Rocket Science,” tackled the problem of circle walking.
noted that the Max Planck study also studied a group of 15 blindfolded people loose in a large field with instructions to
walk straight ahead. “All of them walked in very random paths, including large flamboyant loops, and, on occasion, surprisingly
small circles of as little as 20 meters in diameter. Only three of the 15 people consistently veered in one direction and
they did indeed go rounds in circles. The others walked more chaotic paths.”
said the rest meandered in various directions. One volunteer who participated in both the field and forest experiment, veered
in opposite directions. This, Young wrote, “strongly argues against the influence of asymmetric legs or brains. . .
Without landmarks to guide them the walkers were relying on feedback from their bodies and their sense of balance. These cues
can help over short distances, but Souman says that they soon build up ‘sensory noise’ that renders them inaccurate
and causes the person’s trajectory to drift.”
the walkers in the field were allowed to walk for 50 minutes, yet none of them got more than 100 meters from where they began.
"Ironically, in the age of ubiquitous navigation systems in airplanes, cars, and even mobile phones, we are only beginning
to understand how humans navigate through their environment, exploring uncharted terrain."
Young added that
the study shows that even the simple act of walking in a straight line is more complex than it might first appear.