Walking In CirclesJanuary 9, 2011 1:54 PM   Subscribe

NPR looks at why we can't walk in a straight line. More info (and radio broadcast) is available on NPR's main page.
posted by gman (52 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

We did this recently. We're going around in circles.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:57 PM on January 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Got to love it! You turn to the link, read the long article and then discover....the author doesn't know the answer and is still working on it. Well I know and I am not telling. So there.
posted by Postroad at 2:16 PM on January 9, 2011

OPEN LOOP CONTROL SYSTEM UNRELIABLE, FILM AT 11
posted by DU at 2:21 PM on January 9, 2011 [13 favorites]

Blindfolded? I can't walk in a straight line with my eyes wide open and it gets worse the more people are walking besides me. :/
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:21 PM on January 9, 2011

Why should we assume that we should be able to walk in a straight line without visual guidance?
posted by -t at 2:22 PM on January 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

the author doesn't know the answer and is still working on it. Well I know and I am not telling. So there.

Left-Leaning News Source Exposes Banking Crisis
- FoxNews
posted by hal9k at 2:22 PM on January 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

...those Blair Witch kids were onto something.
posted by griphus at 2:24 PM on January 9, 2011

Why should we assume that we should be able to walk in a straight line without visual guidance?

Naively, I would think random deviations would accumulate toward both the left and the right with equal probability. So over a long period, your random missteps to the left and right could cancel each other out, and you end up walking generally straight. The spiral behavior implies some kind of asymmetry, but it's interesting that they're having trouble identifying what, exactly, that asymmetry is.
posted by knave at 2:29 PM on January 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

I can't draw a straight line, either. Scientists, study me!
posted by axiom at 2:29 PM on January 9, 2011

I always assumed it was because we're all drunk and stoned.
posted by hippybear at 2:30 PM on January 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

OPEN LOOP CONTROL SYSTEM UNRELIABLE, FILM AT 11

Plus or minus three minutes.
posted by eriko at 2:33 PM on January 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm guessing that it has to do with self-preservation. In order to keep us from wandering off and getting lost, our brains are setup to wander in circles until we find a landmark that we recognize.
posted by AZNsupermarket at 2:47 PM on January 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

Oddly, this makes me feel better about my fear of deep woods. Because a part of me knows that my lousy sense of direction makes it more likely that I will die in them.

I thought Bill Bryson mentioned something about this in A Walk in the Woods, and that the theory was it that people veered in the direction of the Earth's spin or somesuch?
posted by emjaybee at 2:47 PM on January 9, 2011

Naively, I would think random deviations would accumulate toward both the left and the right with equal probability.

i think that you've actually struck closer to an answer as to why we can NOT navigate in a straight line!

see if this makes sense:

we have to define a straight line by where we were and where we are, in order to then decide where we WANT to go.

imagine then, that we set out and move from point A to point B. by definition AB forms a "line" and let's say that that is the line that we want to keep.

now let's say that we have a 50% of making our next point--point C--in line with AB and a 25% chance that C will be out of line in the"plus" direction and 25% chance that C will be out of line in the"minus" direction. so 2 out of every 4 "steps" will be out of line by some degree.

however, the LINE that they will be "out" of will only be defined by the previous two points! since we will have a 50% chance of maintaining that new line (BC, for example), if BC is off from AB, then we will necessarialy tend to stay off--once we deviate from the original line, there is no way to orient back to it.

in the documented cases in the video, there are ample opportunities for external factors to influence the results, and i would bet that those factors (terrain, genetics, group dynamics, etc) go into explaining not why we cannot keep a straight line, by why we show consistency in our deviations.
posted by DavidandConquer at 2:57 PM on January 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

knaveThe spiral behavior implies some kind of asymmetry, but it's interesting that they're having trouble identifying what, exactly, that asymmetry is.

I can't seem to watch Vimeo links, so forgive if TFA addresses this, but I always thought this happens for the same reason most people bat right-handed - We tend to have a favored side, and that side has more strength and endurance than the other. So not only do we start out walking slightly curved because one leg pushes just a bit harder than the other, but that gets worse over time as the other leg fatigues faster.
posted by pla at 3:24 PM on January 9, 2011

Does this happen to blind people, too? And does it depend on whether they were blind since birth, since relatively young, or since relatively old?
posted by Flunkie at 3:26 PM on January 9, 2011

The exact same thing happens to pilots if they lose all visual references and attempt to fly by "feel" instead of by the instruments. The result is the aircraft descends in a tighter and tighter spiral until it hits the ground.

Sadly, it's a fairly common accident and it's what happened to JFK Jr.
posted by smoothvirus at 3:27 PM on January 9, 2011

I've experienced this first hand in the most embarassing way.

I used to teach for the army, the tank driver/gunner/loader version of a basic infantry course (pretty much the same course except you also learn how to drive a jeep and use the different tank comms systems).

So one day I'm leading a section of 8-10 men on a patrol so they can learn their part, it was supposed to be a two mile walk in the woods to recce (recon for the yanks) a bridge. The rectangular patch of woods was bounded by a road to my left, a fence to my right, and a river at the end which connected the two and featured the bridge. I'd also cross two small brooks that ran perpendicular to the river.

Things started off well, I had someone counting our pace, we crossed the first brook within 100 steps of where I expected, we got to the second brook, not much longer and we'd be at the river, only we didn't. We keep walking but we don't hear the river, and our pace is way higher than I expect, and then we cross a third brook. Uh oh.

My 2ic walks up and says we have a problem, I say yup, and that's when he points out the fence is now on my left. I'd gotten cocky since I thought I was walking in a pretty small box, I ignored my compass when I should have been ignoring my gut, Rather than a straight line I'd made a half circle and crossed the same brook twice! I swore him not to tell anybody about it.
posted by furtive at 3:29 PM on January 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

Coriolis effect.
posted by logicpunk at 3:30 PM on January 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you walk without rhythm, you won't attract the worm.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 3:45 PM on January 9, 2011 [12 favorites]

Naively, I would think random deviations would accumulate toward both the left and the right with equal probability.

I think you're very close here, but not all error is random. Did you lace your shoes equally tight this morning? Are you legs equally long? Which is your dominant eye and how dominant is it? My bet is that they have trouble identifying the asymmetry because it's not one thing - it's the sum of a bunch of little things, some physical and some psychological.

I think the bit with the car in the field is somewhat telling since the driver's brain has not been dealing with the same car for his whole life (unlike his legs/feet/etc.) and suddenly we have a curve that goes one way for a while and then the other.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:05 PM on January 9, 2011

Almost all the spiraling behavior illustrated in the video is towards the right (clockwise), a fact which isn't mentioned at all in the voice-over. That seems like it could be an important clue, though. Do left-handed people go clockwise? Do people from non-Western cultures go clockwise? What happens when people who grew up navigating the outdoors (bushmen and aborigines) try this?
posted by Western Infidels at 4:06 PM on January 9, 2011

Huh. My grade school chum, at 12 years old stood 6 feet, would walk to school together everyday and I of course would be yammering away and slowly drift into his space, his portion of the sidewalk. One day, he did the same to me and I am all WTF?. He smiles that wry grin with a raised eyebrow…I gritted out half-smile then laughed so hard we both were late to class. The teacher asked why were late and my friend said. “experiments in gravitational pull prevented our timely arrival”
posted by clavdivs at 4:07 PM on January 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

[comments removed - the difference between us and boingboing is that we have a metatalk, you can use it if you want to, thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 4:32 PM on January 9, 2011

WALKING IN CIRCLES.

In the winter months, we not unfrequently hear of travellers in this country losing their lives in attempting to cross snow-covered moors while the light is imperfect . Even though the distance be only a few hundred yards, yet in the absence of a definite track or distinctive landmark, the traveler toils on through weary hours, until physical exhaustion overcomes him, and he falls into that lethargic sleep which is the terror of the traveler in cold regions. When the track of such a one is examined, it is found to be more or less of a circular nature, tending, no doubt, to irregularities, but such only as we should expect of an exhausted and despairing man. This tendency to walk in a circle when the individual is unaided by the eye, may be said to be almost universal; and it is in virtue of this tendency that explorers journey only by aid of the compass. Some of our readers may recollect that in their school-days, walking blindfolded was a favourite pastime, some individuals diverging to one side, some to another, and but few walking in a straight line. These facts are so commonly known as to be beyond dispute; but we believe that the cause is not so generally understood, and is not perhaps even yet definitely ascertained.

Recently, the subject has been discussed in Nature, and the opinions of the scientists who have taken part in the discussion have brought out, that though the individual is unconscious of the tendency to walk in a circle, yet it is probably due to a physical inequality on the part of the individual. Let it be considered that if, in walking, the strides are unequal in length, they will tend to carry the individual in the direction of the shorter stride, so that in a certain time and space the walking track will assume the form of a circle. That the strides of an individual generally are unequal, we have proof in reminiscences of some experiments by Mr G. H. Darwin, who, with his eyes shut, started to walk in a grass field, and found that he had described a circle of about fifty yards' diameter, the divergence being towards the right; and in repeated experiments, he was unable to impose a sufficiently strong conscious bias in one direction to overcome the unconscious bias in the other. Further experimenting with eight schoolboys, six of whom were strongly right-handed and two feebly left-handed, he found that the six had a longer stride from left to right, one of the others from right to left, and the remaining one had equal strides. When these boys were caused to hop, the six used the left limb; the next one, the right; and the other hopped on the right on the first trial, then on the left on the second. Offering a prize to the one who should walk straightest, the boy who had equal strides and hopped equally well on either limb walked straight to the goal; the six left-legged boys diverged to the right; and the right-legged one to the left . These results tend to show that inequality of strides is due to physical inequality of the limbs; and one correspondent having suggested that the lower limbs differ in length, and hence cause variation in strides, an authority—Dr J. G. Garson, Royal College of Surgeons, London—adduces proof that this is so. In seventy skeletons, he found by measurement that seven—or ten per cent.—only had the lower limbs equal in length; twenty-five —35.8 per cent.—had the right limb longer than the left; and in thirty-eight instances—or 54.5 per cent.—the left limb was the longer. When these facts are considered, it becomes apparent that if the limbs are unequal in length, the individual cannot possibly walk straight unless when guided by the eye, so that the circular track of the lost traveller is just what we should expect in the circumstances.

-- Chambers's Journal, 1885
posted by benzenedream at 4:37 PM on January 9, 2011 [9 favorites]

Wait, so how do blind people go anywhere? Or how did the blind get anywhere before there were sidewalks and other physical barriers to tell them they were going in the right direction?
posted by geoff. at 4:46 PM on January 9, 2011

I can't seem to watch Vimeo links, so forgive if TFA addresses this, but I always thought this happens for the same reason most people bat right-handed - We tend to have a favored side, and that side has more strength and endurance than the other. So not only do we start out walking slightly curved because one leg pushes just a bit harder than the other, but that gets worse over time as the other leg fatigues faster.

I didn't RTFA or WTFV either, but I did HTFRadioPiece a while ago, and handedness was not a reliable indicator of which direction a person spiralled off in.
posted by LionIndex at 4:50 PM on January 9, 2011

The other night I was wandering solo around the mefight Minecraft server for a couple of hours (I'm told it is of similar size to Lichtenstein) and though it has visual cues as to compass direction (the Sun, Moon and stars transition through the sky in the "right" direction short term, there is no effect of the ecliptic that I can discern) and though I am right- handed in the real world I found myself wandering in a loop favoring an incremental left turn which is what right-handed people (as I am) do in real life when not in familiar territory or in territory without reference points.
My sojourn was mostly confined to established paths though so I was wondering which was cart and which was horse: Did the people that built the paths (most being right-handed) wander toward left? I wonder if other people have experienced the same handedness phenomena when inside a game.
posted by vapidave at 4:51 PM on January 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

You know if your hand is bigger than your face you have a statistically higher chance of being mentally retarded. You can't question science, folks.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:57 PM on January 9, 2011

Wait, so how do blind people go anywhere? Or how did the blind get anywhere before there were sidewalks and other physical barriers to tell them they were going in the right direction?

They'd take a friend?
posted by Sys Rq at 4:58 PM on January 9, 2011

I blame Eratosthenes (and to a lesser extent Einstein).
posted by ryanrs at 5:01 PM on January 9, 2011

Because the surface of the earth is a sphere, duh.
posted by empath at 5:12 PM on January 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

I seem to recall a wonderful piece in a David Foster Wallace essay about the campaign trail. He's up on a balcony looking down at all the reporters phoning in their stories, each of them walking in a circle as they talk on their cell phones.

Wish I had it handy, I think I remember he observed that everyone was circling in the same direction. But I can't of course remember which direction it was.
posted by ErikaB at 5:19 PM on January 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Empath, you owe me a coke!
posted by ryanrs at 5:22 PM on January 9, 2011

This is why people get lost in the woods. Sure, their eyes are open and there are plenty of landmarks, but none of them are fixed on the horizon, and unless you use the landmarks available to you, you'll almost inevitably walk in circles if left to your own devices.

In Boy Scouts, they teach you how to manage this. If you're lost, pick a nearby tree and mark it. Then pick a direction--use the sun to help you here--and pick a tree a hundred or so yards away. Walk to that tree, and then using the first tree and the one you're at, pick a third one, marking the second before you head to the third. Rinse and repeat until you find yourself somewhere else.

In the Northeast, this is a pretty good way to get yourself un-lost, as you're more or less bound to hit a road, a mountain, a river, something within a few hours' walk. But if you don't keep to a straight line, you really can get yourself in trouble, fast.
posted by valkyryn at 5:28 PM on January 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Western Infidel: "Almost all the spiraling behavior illustrated in the video is towards the right (clockwise)…"

Interesting. On a field trip to the central Darling Downs (Southern Hemisphere, south of the tropic, and as flat as you'll find anywhere), carrying a GPS but navigating largely via compass and the sun, I had the feeling that we were drifting to the left. Subsequent plotting of the GPS logs showed that we did tend to the left - but it was much more pronounced when heading north or east than when heading south or west. My guess was a combination of right-handedness and an unconscious tendency to track the sun.

More interesting: the one time we went out at night, I think we tended right while heading largely east and south, although that was without GPS or compass (not overly smart, but you couldn't walk more than about 4kms in any direction without hitting an identifiable road or creek landmark). When we were heading back to camp we certainly hit the north-south road to the west of us much earlier (but much further south) than we expected.
posted by Pinback at 5:41 PM on January 9, 2011

...I swore him not to tell anybody about it.
posted by
furtive at 6:29 PM on January 9

No comment.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 5:56 PM on January 9, 2011

Not straight. Forward.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:42 PM on January 9, 2011

In Boy Scouts, they teach you how to manage this. If you're lost, pick a nearby tree and mark it. Then pick a direction--use the sun to help you here--and pick a tree a hundred or so yards away. Walk to that tree, and then using the first tree and the one you're at, pick a third one, marking the second before you head to the third. Rinse and repeat until you find yourself somewhere else.

I don't know what kind of crazy fucked-up Boy Scout troop you were in, but the proper thing to do if you are lost in the woods is to STAY PUT.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:59 PM on January 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

I heard about this on NPR the other day and was thinking "the surface of the earth is a sphere!!" But that can't possibly be the answer because any scientists with a knowledge of geometry would be able to solve it. Or is the NPR guy just dumb? What we need to find out is if blindfolded people can walk in a straight line on the equator (or if they are facing due north/south).
posted by treeshar at 8:28 PM on January 9, 2011

I don't know what kind of crazy fucked-up Boy Scout troop you were in, but the proper thing to do if you are lost in the woods is to STAY PUT.

Hah! The thing valkyryn described is an ad-hoc surveying technique for walking straight lines, though.
posted by mendel at 8:49 PM on January 9, 2011

I don't know what kind of crazy fucked-up Boy Scout troop you were in, but the proper thing to do if you are lost in the woods is to STAY PUT.

If you know roughly where you are, can figure out where north is and can walk in a straight line, you're probably okay doing so.
posted by empath at 8:57 PM on January 9, 2011

I will note a common test used in balance sports for footedness. This is used to determine which foot is the forward foot when water-skiing, windsurfing and surfing, snowboarding, etc.

Without informing them of what you are about to do, have the subject stand with their eyes closed, and legs together, with a spotter in front of them. Take off your shoes, and walk up quietly behind them, then with both hands, push them suddenly in their back, just below shoulder height. Inevitably they put one foot forward to arrest their fall ( this is why you have a spotter).

This preference for one foot over the other might explain this, although it needs to be noted that some athletes ride both regular, and goofy-foot in different sports. Mind you, the stronger foot is not necessarily related to handedness either, so any analysis of right or left handed directional deviance might not correlate to handedness. Very interesting, and I too was really let down to discover that the article had nothing new to disclose about this well-known conundrum.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 9:02 PM on January 9, 2011

When you break a mud shark's neck and throw him back in the water,
he spirals downward into the murky depths of death. Just sayin'.
posted by kozad at 9:15 PM on January 9, 2011

Try as they might, and we're still trying these experiments, nobody has really figured out why we can't go straight.

ummm, because of the secret homosexual agenda?
posted by russm at 10:39 PM on January 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Too much sour mash & cheap wine.
posted by kcds at 5:45 AM on January 10, 2011

What strikes me more than the inability to keep a straight line is the apparent inability to judge distance travelled. If you know you're supposed to travel for half a mile and end up walking 20 miles in a circle, wouldn't that factor into your behavior at some point?
posted by anazgnos at 9:35 AM on January 10, 2011

ErikaB: I don't have that DFW piece handy either, but I think the key was that they all circled in such a direction as to put their phone to the inside of the circle. If you hold your phone with your right hand, you circle clockwise, if you hold your phone with your left hand, you circle counterclockwise.

After reading that I realized I do the same thing. Counterclockwise, in my case.
posted by rusty at 11:17 AM on January 10, 2011

ummm, because of the secret homosexual agenda?

They're on to us! Scarper!

#Runs around in circles. Hits tree#
posted by litleozy at 2:27 PM on January 10, 2011

Wait, so how do blind people go anywhere?

Incremental way-points. Lots of them. There is a blind theater troupe in my building and I see them walking around all the time. The do lots of bumping in to walls, curbs, vending machines, and whatever and I'm pretty sure they're using those bumps as way-points. I'm pretty sure that in unfamiliar area a blind person would walk in circles just the same as a blindfolded sighted person.

Way-points pretty much only works for familiar places, though. Going someplace new either requires a mix of blind-friendly navigation aids (signs, walk ways), guts and asking directions or taking a friend.
posted by mexican at 6:36 PM on January 10, 2011

So is the solution to consciously veer left in order to compensate?
posted by grubi at 6:03 AM on January 11, 2011

walk up quietly behind them, then with both hands, push them suddenly in their back, just below shoulder height.

My preferred method is to sneak up from the front and have the assistant squatting down behind them - then push!
posted by greenhornet at 10:35 AM on January 11, 2011

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