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Walking in Circles

September 17, 2009

People really do walk in circles when they get lost – if there’s no way for them to get their bearings.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):
Straying from the straight path. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

People really do walk in circles when they get lost. This according to Jan Souman of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany. He and his colleagues dropped people in an unfamiliar forest or desert, and tracked them via GPS. Souman says that if the sun or moon was out, the volunteers were able to walk straight ahead. But when it was cloudy, they walked in circles.

JAN SOUMAN (Max Planck Institute, Germany):
We didn’t expect to find that at the beginning. We thought that people would do something random, but not really walk in circles.

HIRSHON:
What’s more, he says the circles were surprisingly small: just a few hundred yards in diameter. Further tests showed that people don’t automatically default to one direction or another. Rather, Souman suspects that without a fixed reference point like the Sun, misleading sensory cues can make us veer slightly left or right without realizing it. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.