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View Full Version : The getting lost and walking in circles



Mario F.
05-06-2008, 07:12 PM
Ok, this is probably silly, but I'm curious...

As you have seen countless times from real life reports or in fiction, one weird consequence of getting lost in an environment where it is not possible to take reference points is that people tend to go around in circles, eventually even returning to the point where they left.

I have no idea why this happen... or if it actually happens that much. One explanation I heard simply didn't convince me at all; that we have an hard time walking in a straight line, invariably describing a circle. This doesn't explain the same situation happening on rough terrain like jungle, for instance. Also, some people report having walked for hours only to return to the same place. This would mean a big radius and I find it hard to believe we could unknowingly plot such wide and perfect circle while walking.

What do you know about this?

robwhit
05-06-2008, 07:24 PM
Poor navigation. I don't do it. Even if you were lost, you would still know where you are in reference to where you were when you got lost.

Then again, I don't go wandering around lost for hours. How do people manage to do that anyway?

h3ro
05-06-2008, 07:27 PM
I have heard that normally one leg is shorter then the other. So when we walk we always move a little to one side.

SlyMaelstrom
05-06-2008, 07:32 PM
To clarify on h3ro's explanation.

All humans, like with their hands, have a dominant leg that takes longer and stronger strides than the other leg. With no reference point to walk towards our bodies will naturally turn in a circle. Granted, it would be a pretty large circle and it may take several hours or even days to get back to where you started, however, as your weaker leg tires quicker than your dominant leg, the circular motion increases. Generally this is a good explanation of why you can't walk a long distance in one directions and not be several miles off after some time.

As far as walking in circle's... I think it's just the way out internal compass works. We are very unsure of ourselves and impulsively change directions without really thinking about it... we also tend to go towards things we know (like a tree we've seen) even though we may not realize. It's a security thing... I dunno, I would go with something like that.

Mario F.
05-06-2008, 07:46 PM
Hmm... putting it that way makes sense, yes.

SlyMaelstrom
05-06-2008, 09:27 PM
Honestly, though... that second part was pure speculation and I'd like to know if you find a more scientific answer to this.

robwhit
05-06-2008, 10:35 PM
That's like saying toilets go in one direction because of the coriolis effect.

brewbuck
05-06-2008, 11:40 PM
I walk around on mountains a lot. There are a few things I've noticed.

When you feel like you are traversing a slope on an even course, you are probably actually going down slightly. If you are in a bowl-like feature of the terrain, this causes you to spiral inward and downward, possibly missing a landmark.

You have to deviate around barriers which are sometimes very large, and without prior planning (by sighting landmarks or taking compass bearings) it is easy to forget to correct for the deviation on the other side of the barrier. Since people typically go around obstacles on the downhill side, the error tends to accumulate on the downhill side of the slope.

Also, there is plain old confusion, where landmarks are mistaken for each other leading you to deliberately backtrack (although you don't know you're doing it).

There are a few tricks if caught out without proper navigation aids (map, compass, altimeter, GPS, etc.)

First, look at the sun, stupid! (Edit: This isn't always possible, obviously) It always stays in one half of the sky (depending on your hemisphere). Over short periods of time it stays in approximately the same position -- if you find the sun on your left, and then on your right 15 minutes later, you've turned around.

Second, set an initial bearing, then look in the opposite direction. Sight a landmark along this line, call it A. Now look forward, sight another landmark, some distance away but in clear view, and call it B. Now walk to B. Turn around, and re-sight A. This gets you realigned on your original heading. Now turn 180 degrees, and repeat the process with a new landmark C. Continue this as long as you want to walk in a straight line.

Magos
05-07-2008, 12:33 AM
Slightly offtopic, but related. I recently watched LotR-TT again, and Frodo/Sam said they were lost finding their way to Mordor when they clearly see mount Doom in the distance, which is their target. And still they walk in circles. No, I have no point with this post :).

Oldman47
05-07-2008, 05:54 AM
I got lost only once in my life, on an unfamiliar mountaintop while hunting. Found a comfortable dead log, leaned back and fell asleep. When I awoke, I was disoriented and couldn't ascertain from which direction I came (it was just about dark by now).

To cut it short, I picked a direction and started walking. I'm fairly certain that I was walking in a straight line since I eventually descended onto a roadway (about 2 hrs later), albeit I did a 180 and headed down the wrong side of the mountain.

Yarin
05-07-2008, 06:05 AM
I've never done that before, and I don't think very many people do. It's the movies; what would a movie be with reality in it? It you have a set destination, you can get there, even if you have to manouver past things. Even if you arn't right on target, that last thing you'll do is walk [u]against[u] your desired course. Unless of course, you're messed up or a little coo-coo, but again, that's the movies for you.

Yarin
05-07-2008, 06:07 AM
And the thing about the dominate leg, I'm pretty sure we subconsciously compensate for that.

matsp
05-07-2008, 06:10 AM
I think it's likely that you'd (more often) walk in circles if the landscape is relatively feature-less, such as flat snowy landscape, or a forest full of similar looking trees (plantation).

--
Mats

indigo0086
05-07-2008, 06:15 AM
I always wondered why one pant leg went further down than the other.

mike_g
05-07-2008, 06:17 AM
If one leg was 9" shorter than the other how big would the circle that you walk in be?

They should put that in maths exams :D

Yarin
05-07-2008, 06:21 AM
1. It depends on the size of your stride.
2. It depends on the length of your other leg
3. More?..

SlyMaelstrom
05-07-2008, 06:52 AM
And the thing about the dominate leg, I'm pretty sure we subconsciously compensate for that....but that's the point, our mind has no means of compensating for it if we have no target or focus point. You're trying to say that these are all movie concepts to add tention to a plot, but it's simple not. There are tons of real-life cases of people just walking around in circles because they get lost and even more so of people just finding themselves way off track because they have no way of knowing their exact direction... these things happen in situations where there is no visibility or the environment changes. To use a movie as an example in the remake of "Flight of the Phoenix," they explain to a guy who decides he will hike to the nearest city that he can not based on the dominant leg logic. Not being able to use a compass, he concluded that he would just walk towards the peaks of sand dunes in the distance. They responded explaining that the sand dunes shift and would not lead him in a straight path. This was not just a movie trick... it's absolutely true. This scenerio goes the same for situations where you can't see very far, such as thick woods or thick fog, and cannot get any fixed point to focus on.

Generally people get more lost trying to go back where they came from because they don't realize how much they've turned in their initial trip. People will walk a few miles into the woods and say "Let's go back," do an immediate 180° turn and figure if they walk straight, they'll be right back where they started. Of course, they don't realize how not straight their hike to that point in the woods were so even if they were to walk back in a straigh path, they would be way off course.

indigo0086
05-07-2008, 07:17 AM
1. It depends on the size of your stride.
2. It depends on the length of your other leg
3. More?..

Also you'll just be walking in a closed polygon. The shorter your stride gets, the closer to a smooth circle it becomes.

medievalelks
05-07-2008, 07:51 AM
I think the term "circle", in this case, should be interpreted euphemistically rather than geometrically. You could make a triangle or some odd shape and end up at the starting point, but still say that you're "going around in circles".

Mario F.
05-07-2008, 08:03 AM
Yup, the leg thing makes sense. But I guess only when coupled with that subconscious effect Sly mentioned before in which we may tend to inadvertently walk in the direction of a recognized landmark, even if we don't notice that happening.

All things being equal any constant deviation from a straight path will draw a circle no matter how wide. But the problem I was facing with that explanation was it didn't explain some reported cases in which people described a circle in very rough terrain; jungle and mountainous terrains, for instance. However, having our brain working against us fills this gap.

Brewbuck also mentioned the interesting fact the terrain features (especially elevation, if I understood this right) may work against us. I certainly can picture the illusion of a bowl shaped terrain can provoke on someone not ready.

As for Frodo and Sam, the book is much more detailed, Magos. The Emyn Muil is a maze of chasms and unclimbable rock faces. The problem was not so much seeing where they were going, the problem was getting out of the maze, of which shire folk had absolutely no experience with.

SlyMaelstrom
05-07-2008, 08:37 AM
I always like to think of the human brain as a really, really powerful CPU that doesn't have it's heatsink applied correctly. Add a little excess heat, moisture, shake it up a bit and it loses it's orientation and starts doing crazy stuff. Having no grasp of where you are is like being drunk... it affects your balance, it affects your sense of depth and direction... you may think you're walking normal but from an outside perspective you could be stumbling around aimlessly no really getting anywhere. The human brain is a very powerful thing, but when it's taken out of it's element, it gets easily confused.

brewbuck
05-07-2008, 08:59 AM
Confusion is certainly a factor. People have walked the planet for a long, long time without any form of navigation tool, and done just fine.

One wonders how the human race ever got out of Africa if people actually couldn't walk in a straight line for long distances.

All the arguments about terrain, leg length, etc. are not really that important. I think the biggest factor is the alienation of modern civilization from the earth. We walk in circles because we've forgotten (or were never taught) how to exist in the natural world.

Mario F.
05-07-2008, 09:08 AM
All the arguments about terrain, leg length, etc. are not really that important. I think the biggest factor is the alienation of modern civilization from the earth. We walk in circles because we've forgotten (or were never taught) how to exist in the natural world.

A thought that pops in my mind from time to time. I couldn't agree more with it.

SlyMaelstrom
05-07-2008, 09:39 AM
Confusion is certainly a factor. People have walked the planet for a long, long time without any form of navigation tool, and done just fine.

One wonders how the human race ever got out of Africa if people actually couldn't walk in a straight line for long distances.Not exactly relevant to what I was talking about... I believe we're talking here about people walking in circles when they are lost and there for have no reference point of where they are going. History tends to show that our distant ancestors migrated by either following prey (there by having tracks as a reference point) or being chased away by a predetor (there by knowing the direction they shouldn't be going). Early exploration resulted in many, many people getting lost and even the greatest navigators and explorers of the past, who utilized sun and star positions (redundant, I know) for direction, found themselves getting lost.

Of course, there are some good classical examples of people traveling great distances from one relatively small point to another with accuracy. The run from Athens to Marathon comes to mind... however, I couldn't quite say what kind of landmarks were placed between these two cities for the messenger to utilize for direction.

All of this aside, I would say that you make a great point with how our natural instincts have changed vs our ancestors... perhaps in some time, science will decide they have changed so much that they will consider us evolved into a new species as they had when homo-sapians became homo-sapian-sapians.

indigo0086
05-07-2008, 09:47 AM
I wonder why cars never have this problem.

SlyMaelstrom
05-07-2008, 09:50 AM
I wonder why cars never have this problem.My car does... let go of the steering wheel and I'm into the wall in seconds. I think I need a realignment! >_<

indigo0086
05-07-2008, 09:53 AM
You have an emo car.