Why Can’t We Walk in a Straight Line?

Professional wonderer Robert Krulwich muses about the “profound inability in humans to stick to a straight line when blindfolded or when there is no fixed point—no sun, no moon, no mountain top to guide them.” Watch the sweet animation that illustrates his point.

Note: This in no way means you should get lippy the next time you fail a field sobriety test.

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Why can't we walk in a straight line

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About Lu Fong

Lu Fong was a staff writer and blog editor for the Good Men Project in its formative years. As the requisite woman on staff, her hobbies included cleaning, cooking, knitting, fainting, and childbearing. Follow her on Twitter @lufong.

Comments

  1. Jimmy Olivo says:

    The maps look like a positive feedback effect to me… I’d guess that whatever sensory feedback loop is in effect when attempting to walk in a straight line is being broken by the blindfold, leaving the experimentee in a smaller loop which is feeding back on itself.

    But I’m not a scientist. I’m a jerk.

  2. Anonymous Male says:

    I like the explanation from one commenter that it’s basically mathematical probability. There are an infinite number of ways to walk, and a straight line is only one of them. When you’re not getting any help walking in a straight line, you go one of these other possible ways. That doesn’t quite explain going in a circle, though….

    • It actually does explain going in a circle, since it is most likely that whatever slight curve you’ve gotten yourself think it is straight, you will keep following and calibrating to that slight curve. more or less.

  3. I liked the thought near the end that possibly it was one side of the body being slightly more powerful than other, causing the other side of the body to relatively drag, making the body move slightly in the direction of the dragging side. Who knows though, tough call, very interesting though.

  4. I just thought it would be something like the rotation of the earth or something accompanied by the obvious lack of observation point for direction, but like the rotation would explain the walking in circles too sort of. I would have at least thought the video would have addressed and then disregarded it or something. If this idea is just retarded please tell me and explain why I’m wrong

    • nathan robo says:

      this is the same thought i had, the rotation and gravitational pull etc of the earth were my first thoughts. I would also like to know if it is retarded or not haha

  5. Has someone tried this while walking backwards?

  6. I have doubts about the experiment with the car.I mean,you could drive in a straight line just by holding the steering wheel without rotating it even though you can’t see…

    • @Darky
      Two things come to mind. 1. Driving in a Kansas field means bumps and dips so wheel movement is in play. 2. Those old cars don’t drive in a straight line when you hold the wheel steady. They need constant adjustment. I suspect those minor adjustments include a bias which is magnified over time.

      • You’re right,I didn’t consider those elements but I still don’t think it’s possible to deviate so much just because of the bumpy road or because of wheel movement.I mean,it must have been some serios wheel movement involved to cause the car to turn so much.
        Anyway,maybe it’s just me and it is possible..

  7. Charles says:

    Coriollis effect, the Earth is rotating, and tilting in real time, there is no straight, everything is curved, 2+2 = spirals in the direction of the turning of the Earth

  8. Calimomma says:

    What if it is due to the rotation of the earth? The fluid in our ears detecting that faint movement maybe….

  9. Viktor Engelmann says:

    maybe that comes from the early times of mankind (can monkeys go in straight lines?) maybe this was an evolutionary advantage back then – humans who walk in circles find their way back home…

    why only if we don’t have fixpoints? it may have faded over time or maybe it comes from a more primitive time, before we even had a concept of a “fixpoint” and before we could recognize locations.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    calimomma
    Seen the experiments. Two guys sit about ten feet from each other on a rotating surface. One throws the other a ball. If he throws the ball directly at the other guy, he misses. He has to lead as if the target is moving, even though the target isn’t moving in relation to the thrower. The target guy is being moved out of the original line.
    When you walk, one foot is in the air and will come down very slightly away from where you expected it to go due to rotation. This isn’t a big deal, but it means you are slightly out of balance, the foot being slightly not under your center of gravity, which has to be corrected and the correction isn’t going to be perfect. The more of your surroundings you can see, the less error there will be and the smaller the correction need be.
    Add one leg being slightly longer than the other which is the case for most people, and imperfections in the ground, and you need constant feedback

  11. nedmorlef says:

    Just goes to prove that the dwi is another gov’t scam to get your money. The kicker is that, in my state of NC the state runs the liquor stores and requires auto insurance by law..

  12. I just stumbled on this. It seems to me that if you are left handed you turn one way and right handed you turn the other. Stronger leg muscles push one way or the other.

  13. What about blind people? curious if they walk straight.

  14. philippe says:

    Why not repeating the experiment with blind at birth people and other stage blind people ?

  15. Michael Farmer says:

    I’m not sure why people find this so surprising and need to come up with complex explanations for it. I would have been much more surprised if it turned out that we could walk in straight lines without a fixed reference point. If you think about it from the perspective of the curvature of the path a person makes while walking (or more likely the average curvature) it would be extremely unlikely that the average curvature would be zero (a straight line). Any average that wasn’t exactly zero would cause the walker to eventually walk in a large loop. Walking in a loop should be the expected outcome.

  16. Invidia says:

    Has anyone considered that this might be an evolutionary adaption to stop people from getting too far from their starting point when lost, therefore preventing them from getting even more lost? Just a wild thought.

  17. Has anyone ever thought it might be due to the rotation of the planet? Or magnetism? Many animals migrate and use the magnetic field of the earth to help with their internal compass. We could have an internal compass as well that is effected by this, how ever ours is in a simple term… retarded. As in it doesn’t point north, but keeps turning. As we walk our internal compass keeps turning, telling us that straight is off to the side.

  18. I wonder if a person that has been blind their entire life could accomplish this task.

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