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Why Do We Walk in Circles?

A group of researchers conducted an experiment to confirm the common belief that people walk in circles when they are lost. Let’s talk about the results and the reason why people walk around in circles.

According to a study conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany, humans will walk in circles when they are lost unless there is some external reference point that would interfere.

How Did the Study Begin?

The idea for the research came from a German science show Kopfball. In the show, they try to answer their viewers’ questions. The producer of the show contacted Jan Souman. He is a psychologist from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics located in Tübingen, Germany. Souman and his colleagues studied perception and action to confirm the common belief about walking in circles.

We didn’t really know, but we thought it was an interesting question.

Jan Souman, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics

Souman and his team collaborated with the show, and their episode was aired in 2007. (Source: Science)

How was the Study Conducted?

In one experiment, there were 15 volunteers. They were blindfolded and fitted with GPS receivers. They were instructed to walk in a straight line across a rather large field. Most of the volunteers followed the instructions but occasionally walked in circles as small as 20 meters in diameter. According to this previous research, walking in circles may have resulted from subtle differences in the length or strength of the volunteers’ legs that would bias an individual to move toward the left or right.

In Souman’s experiment, most of the volunteers did not show any strong bias toward the direction of their turns. However, the volunteers did have small differences in the strength of their left or right legs. This did not correlate with their turning tendencies. (Source: Science)

What were the Results of Souman’s Study?

The findings suggest that there is a real reason people end up walking in circles, according to the study conducted by Souman and his team, which highly involves the brain. When people cannot see where they are going, the brain has to plot a course to go straight ahead based on the limited information it has acquired. This includes the input from the vestibular system, which informs the sense of balance and movement in muscles and joints.

All those signals have very small errors. In general, that leads people in a random, meandering path, Souman says. But occasionally, the errors in a particular direction build up, leading us to walk in circles.

Jan Souman, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics

A psychologist from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Roberta Klatzky, called the proposed explanation extremely simple and elegant.

Previous studies, dating back to the 1920s, have found that people tend to veer from a straight path when they’re unable to see, she says, but in pre-GPS days, researchers weren’t able to track people long and far enough to see them walk in complete circles.

Roberta Klatzky, Carnegie Mellon University

When people can see where they are going, that is a different story. Souman and his team also tracked the movement of the volunteers who walked without a blindfold in unfamiliar environments; a forest in Germany and the Sahara desert in Tunisia. The people in the forest walked in circles, only on cloudy days. When the sun was high and visible, they walked in a straight line for hours. This was the same with the sunny environment.

Visual cues such as the sun or the shadows it casts enable people to overcome the tendency to walk in circles.

Jan Souman, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics

(Source: Science)

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