New study: Lost people really do walk in circles

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tubingen, Germany, have presented the first empirical evidence that people do end up walking in circles if lost in unfamiliar terrain.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, examined the trajectories of people who walked for several hours in the Sahara desert in Tunisia and in the Bienwald forest in Germany.

Researchers Jan Souman and Marc Ernst said the scientists used the global positioning system (GPS) to record these paths.

The results showed that the walkers were only able to keep a straight line when the sun or moon was visible.

As soon as the sun disappeared behind some clouds, people started to walk in circles without even noticing it, informs Reuters.

Under those conditions, Dr. Souman said, the brain appears to be lacking a fundamental visual cue to help make sense of the jumble of other data it is receiving.

"The brain has different sources of information for almost everything," said Dr. Souman, who admitted to having walked in circles for hours once in the urban jungle that is Istanbul. There is a complicated interplay of different senses, he said. Those cues — images flowing over the retina, the sense of acceleration or turning in the inner ear, even how the muscles and bones are moving — are combined in the brain to give a sense of where the body is going.

"But all those information sources are kind of relative," Dr. Souman said. "They don’t tell you you are moving in the same direction as an hour ago," New York Times reports.

Five years ago, in the Sipsey area near Double Springs, Speir encountered a lost couple. Speir told them to go down a mile and turn left by a waterfall.

Three and a half hours later, the couple came right back from where they started. They made a complete circle.

Speir hasn't gotten that lost himself. "I'm not bragging - it's called 'Where's your map and your compass?' "

If completely lost in unknown terrain, Speir suggests, "Follow the water that is leaving the area. Typically water will take you to areas that are developed or roads.

"It's very rare that you're going to find water that takes you in a circle," informs TimesDaily.