With nothing to guide their way, people attempting to walk a straight course through unfamiliar territory really do end up walking in circles, according to a report published online in Current Biology. Although that belief has pervaded popular culture, there has been no scientific evidence to back it up until now, according to the researchers. “People cannot walk in a straight line if they do not have absolute references, such as a tower or a mountain in the distance or the sun or moon, and often end up walking in circles,” said Jan Souman of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany. Those circular paths are rarely systematic. The same person may veer to the left, then again to the right, before ending up back where he started from. That rules out one potential explanation for the phenomenon: that circle-walking stems from some systematic bias to turn in one direction, such as differences in leg length or strength. It seems that the circles emerge naturally through “random drift”; a person merely thinks he’s going straight.
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