After hearing that people walk in circles when lost, Jan Souman, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tubingen, Germany, decided to test if this really was the case.
He figured that instead of walking in circles, people might just veer a bit to the left or right, but would keep going in the same general direction. To test his hypothesis, he outfitted some volunteers with GPS trackers and put them in darkly lit forests where the sun or moon couldn’t act as a guide. He then then told the volunteers to walk in one direction for a couple of hours. To his amazement, the study showed that no matter how hard they tried, most people really did end up walking in complete circles.
The people that couldn’t see the sun or the moon that ended up going in circles, while the ones that did have something like the moon or the sun to follow went in a fairly straight line.
The two environments Souman tested were in the Sahara desert and in a forest. With the sun or the moon present in the Sahara desert, people walked straight, but as soon as it got dark they started slowly going left or right until they were back where they started from. In the forest, the people that walked during a cloudy day also walked in circles, as opposed to the ones that did see the sun and went straight.
“Just walking in a straight line seems like such a simple and natural thing to do, but if you think about it, it’s quite complicated thing going on in the brain,” said Jan Souman, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tubingen, Germany. “After these experiments, I would never go into a big forest or desert without a compass or GPS anymore.”
These results also concur with the cases of lost hikers that end up dying in the wild. When found, most of them are within a mile, if not 100 meters from where they originally got lost. If you’re ever lost in the wild, Randy Gallistel, a cognitive neuroscientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey suggests learning some simple Boy Scout tricks like knowing that Moss grows on the north side of trees, that there is less vegetation on the south-facing side of a valley than on its north-facing slopes, and that the sun moves from east to west throughout the day. Better yet, bring a map and compass or GPS device.
“If you are going to move, make sure you know how to move in a straight line… Straight lines are helpful. Circles don’t get you anywhere” said Gallistel.
Another reason that heading in a straight line is a great idea is that it’s hard to find a spot in the continental United States that’s more than 20 miles from a road. So as long as you keep going straight, you are bound to hit a road sooner or later.