In A Nutshell
It seems unlikely that once external reference points have been removed, we all have no choice but to wander aimlessly in circles, like a child’s wind-up toy from the 1950s. But it’s absolutely true. Researchers aren’t completely sure why we do it, although they do have some theories. What they have proven, though, is that if you remove any external guidance points, we as a species are completely unable to walk in a straight line.
The Whole Bushel
We’ve all seen the plot device on television or in a movie. A group of people, lost in the woods, or in the desert, with no way to navigate. They opt for just walking in a straight line until they get somewhere, but they invariably end up crossing their trail or stopping right where they started again.
It’s incredibly easy to scoff at, and very easy for the viewer to believe that they can do so, so much better. How hard is it, after all, to just walk in a straight line? We do it all the time.
It turns out that without reference points, it’s impossible.
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics decided to conduct some experiments on the phenomenon of walking in circles while lost. It’s officially called “lost-hiker deja vu,” and it happens a lot.
They sent a number of volunteers into the desert of Tunisia and the forests of Germany. The goal was to get people completely and thoroughly lost, to see just what they—and their sense of direction—would do.
When the volunteers had some sort of point of reference, like the Sun or the Moon, they were able to follow it in a straight line. Once that reference disappeared, though, they quite literally seemed to forget just what a sense of direction is, and began wandering in circles—usually, without even realizing they were doing it.
Not everyone in the study went off in the same direction, either. Some people veered left, some right, some seemed to do a completely random combination of left, right, and circles. Some people had successfully made a complete circle by the time they’d gone 20 meters (66 ft). Testing the same people more than once showed that they weren’t even consistent in what they did.
The randomness of just what direction we’ll wander off in seems to disprove the theory that we might veer in one direction or the other because of asymmetrical legs and bodies, one of the most common rationalizations for the behavior.
Instead, researchers suspect that it has something to do with the workings of our inner ear. Some people have been diagnosed with inner ear problems that make it all but impossible for them to walk in a straight line when they’re in circumstances that make it easy for most—say, walking down the street.
That makes them suspect that the rest of us all share a more mild case of an inner ear imbalance that we only notice when we either can’t see or when our external reference points are taken away. Following something like the Sun or stars allows us to make tiny, unconscious changes to our direction and walk in a straight line. When those external factors are removed, our brains have no way of calculating what adjustments to make, and the inner ear sends us wandering off in random directions.
It’s not known for sure just what’s going on and why we seem pre-programmed to wander in circles, though. And more experience in areas like hiking doesn’t even make you more likely to avoid waking in circles. You’ll still do it no matter how many times you’ve been off walking through the woods, you just might be slightly more aware that you’re doing it.