Walk this sway

NPR has a fascinating segment about how humans can’t walk in a straight line unless we have an external guide. We just end up walking in circles.

It turns out, no one is really sure why this happens but experiments on walkers, drivers and swimmers have all found the tendency to circle back on ourselves despite us thinking that we’re maintaining a steady course ahead.

The NPR piece is both a short radio discussion and an animation so make you catch both as it’s a minor but utterly fascinating mystery.

So why, when blindfolded, can’t we walk straight? There is still no good answer. Jan Souman, a research scientist in Germany, co-wrote a paper last year about this human tendency to walk in circles…

In our radio broadcast, Jan and I explore possible explanations for this tendency to slip into turns. Maybe, I suggest, this is a form of left or right handedness where one side dominates the other? Or maybe this is a reflection of our left and right brains spitting out different levels of dopamine? Or maybe it’s stupidly simple: Most of us have slightly different sized legs or slightly stronger appendages on one side and this little difference, over enough steps, mounts up?

Wrong, wrong and wrong, Jan says. He’s tested all three propositions (the radio story describes the details) and didn’t get the predicted results.


Link to NPR on ‘Why Can’t We Walk Straight?’ (via @JadAbumrad).

7 thoughts on “Walk this sway”

  1. What really fascinates me – and isn’t mentioned in the article – is how often the route starts off more or less straight and becomes tighter and tighter.

    I’d also be interested to see repeat data from the same individual compared with other individuals, to see if there’s some pattern that’s unique to each person.

  2. Slightly off-topic but it also brings to mind our perplexing tendency to commonly turn towards the right direction assuming there is no definite destination.

    This usually is very much observable in shopping malls when coming from an escalator or emerging from the elevator. Majority of people head for the right direction. This actually led mall operators to charge rental differently in favor of stores on the right side as it ostensibly and advantageously gains more foot traffic.

    If anyone has come across a report or study that tried to shed light on this matter then pls post the link here.

  3. Your looking to the wrong science for an explanation. Physics answers that problem, and the extremely short answer is gravity.

  4. Grashabelle
    The tendency you speak of is cultural. If you were in Japan you would find yourself on collision course with others.
    The tendency is based on cultural driving habits and can be seen when walking on the sidewalk or anywhere people are streaming along. Go somewhere where the cultural norm is driving on the left side and you will see people also walk to the left.

  5. I brought this subject into my psychology class and now I have to make a study on it :)) My professor said it was very interesting.
    I have to study the relationship between the personality of the individuals and the distance they can walk in straight line.
    Help? 😛

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