The Truth About People Walking In Circles When They're Lost

As Psychological Science notes, for over a century, many people have believed that we only use 10% of our brains, despite the fact that's not even remotely true; we use 100% of our brains. Nevertheless, myths like this persist. Northwestern Medicine puts the 10% myth in the same "debunked" category as brain size equaling intelligence, listening to classical music leading to smarter babies, and the classic left-brain/right-brain dichotomy.

But what about the notion that, when lost, humans will tend to walk in circles? We've seen the conceit pop up often in pop culture (even the faux-documentary "The Blair Witch Project" involved the explorers without their compass and map getting hopelessly lost in the woods, eventually winding up back where they started). You've maybe even heard the concept related to you as fact. It turns out, though, the question was so compelling (and surprisingly understudied) that in 2007, a team of researchers decided to find out.

A story of errors compounding

As Mental Floss reports, a German research group sent one team of volunteer subjects into a forest and another team to a desert to test the hypothesis. The team found that, under certain conditions, the lost subjects did walk in circles. Similarly, in an episode of "Mythbusters" (portions of which can be seen on YouTube), the hosts simulated being lost by putting on blindfolds, and indeed, walked in circles.

So if walking in a straight line seems like an entirely mundane and easy task, why is it so challenging to do when lost? As Science explains, it can at least partially be chalked up to compounding errors, particularly in conditions without visual cues, such as the sun or moon, or in whiteout conditions from snowfall. Essentially, the brain is doing the best it can with limited information from other systems, and it makes what it believes are course corrections when it's often making things worse. All of those minor corrections add up, and eventually, the lost traveler is no better off than when he or she began.