based on a news article in the New York Times (free registration required)
German Research has again demonstrated that when visual cues, such as the sun or moon are lacking, people really do hike in circles.
"'People really do walk in circles,' said Jan L. Souman of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen."
Volunteers were tracked both in forest and desert situations to see if they could orient themselves. When the sun or moon was visible, hikers traveled roughly in a straight line. But Dr. Souman said that an absolute visual clue is necessary. Absolute means, outside of the perception of the other senses.
Such things as nearby visual images, a sense of turning from the inner ear, and feedback from bones and muscles combine in the brain. These are processed to create a sense of how the body is and has moved in space. But these alone are relative, and not enough.
Experienced hikers and guides were not at all surprised by the finding. No one should trust their own senses when in a situation with no outside landmarks. A compass or GPS unit is critical when no absolute point of reference is visible.
The German research also showed that people do not consistently circle in one particular direction. Earlier studies suggested such an outcome. Souman's study showed that people began to veer in one direction or the other, and then this became pronounced and defined the direction of their circle.
A licensed Maine guide, Carroll M. Ware, pointed out that this simply emphasizes the lesson that people should take to heart when lost: sit down and stay put. Additional wandering only makes the job of rescuers more difficult.
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