NCBI ROFL: Why walking blindfolded in the Sahara desert might get you lost.

By ncbi rofl | March 28, 2012 7:00 pm

Walking straight into circles.

“Common belief has it that people who get lost in unfamiliar terrain often end up walking in circles. Although uncorroborated by empirical data, this belief has widely permeated popular culture. Here, we tested the ability of humans to walk on a straight course through unfamiliar terrain in two different environments: a large forest area and the Sahara desert. Walking trajectories of several hours were captured via global positioning system, showing that participants repeatedly walked in circles when they could not see the sun. Conversely, when the sun was visible, participants sometimes veered from a straight course but did not walk in circles. We tested various explanations for this walking behavior by assessing the ability of people to maintain a fixed course while blindfolded. Under these conditions, participants walked in often surprisingly small circles (diameter < 20 m), though rarely in a systematic direction. These results rule out a general explanation in terms of biomechanical asymmetries or other general biases [1-6]. Instead, they suggest that veering from a straight course is the result of accumulating noise in the sensorimotor system, which, without an external directional reference to recalibrate the subjective straight ahead, may cause people to walk in circles.”

Photo: flickr/bachmont

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  • Yacko

    It seems to me whether the ground has a slope or is level, might also influence the ability to walk in a straight line. Balance may come into play. Also what about carrying an object, say a quart water bottle, in one hand and not the other? There are other variables the researchers need to filter.

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NCBI ROFL is the brainchild of two Molecular and Cell Biology graduate students at UC Berkeley and features real research articles from the PubMed database (which is housed by the National Center for Biotechnology information, aka NCBI) that they find amusing (ROFL is a commonly-used internet acronym for "rolling on the floor, laughing"). Follow us on twitter: @ncbirofl

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