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Lost Hikers, Backpackers Really Do Walk in Circles
Date:8/20/2009

Study shows disorientation occurs quickly without the sun, moon for guidance,,

THURSDAY, Aug. 20 (HealthDay News) -- Stories abound of adventurers losing their way in the wilderness, unwittingly walking in circles for days.

Now, new research confirms that the anecdotes are true. Without the sun, a compass or a landmark, people trying to follow a straight course through a forest or a desert ended up back where they started, according to a study published online Aug. 20 in Current Biology.

"Our results confirm the stories that are often described in films and books: people often walk in circles when they are lost," said study author Jan Souman, of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany. "Second, our results show that even something seemingly very simple as walking in a straight line actually involves a complicated interplay between several senses, our motor actions and cognition."

In the first experiment, researchers instructed six participants to walk as straight as they could through a large, flat forest, a place in which one tree could quickly look very much like another.

Four participants, walking on a day in which the sun was hidden behind a thick cloud cover, all went in circles, with three participants unintentionally crossing their own path several times.

Two participants walked through the forest on a sunny day. With the sun to guide them, they followed an almost perfectly straight course, as measured by a global positioning system (GPS), except during the first 15 minutes, when the sun was still hidden behind the clouds.

Next, researchers had three people walk in the Sahara desert. Two participants who walked when the sun was out veered from a straight line, but did not walk in a circle.

A third participant walked at night. As soon as the moon disappeared behind clouds, the walker made several sharp turns and started heading back in the
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