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You Can't Walk Straight without Visual Markers [Video]

A series of studies over the last century have proven time and time again: if people can’t see where they are going they can’t walk straight. Check out this video from NPR demonstrating the phenomenon and pick up a few tips on navigating in a white out.

Walking in a straight line would seem like such a simple task but if you can’t see where you’re going you can’t properly align yourself with your destination. Vision, it would seem, is critical to linear motion.

In our radio broadcast, Jan and I  explore [visit the link below and click the "Listen" button to hear it] 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. There is, apparently, no single explanation for this phenomenon. He is working on a multi-causal theory.

As an interesting side note, just last week I was discussing snow storms with someone and he shared a story that mirrors the plight of the travelers in the video above. During a massive snow storm he was attempting to navigate his college’s campus. The major buildings were oriented on the cardinal points of the compass around a huge and smooth bowling green. He started in the south building and, intending to go to the north building, ended up in the east building. From the east building he ended up in the north building. His natural tendency to drift right forced him to building hop until he found the right one.

The take away from this, neat scientific trivia aside, is that you should never attempt to wander your way out of a foggy and snowy situation where you can’t see what you’re trying to get to. You’ll end up going in circles. If you do have to get to safety some how, take a cue from the blind and use the physical world in your immediate surroundings to orient yourself (like keeping your foot against the edge of the street curb or your hand on the wall of a building you know is oriented in the direction you want to go).

Read the full article and listen to the radio broadcast at the link below.

A Mystery: Why Can’t We Walk Straight? [NPR]

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 01/12/11

Comments (4)

  1. chupaka

    no video

  2. Hatryst
  3. Jason

    The article only mentions trying this with blindfolded people. I’d be interested to know how the result change with those who have spent years without sight. I’ve heard many anecdotal stories from people about the uncanny sense of direction many blind people seem to possess.

  4. Camilo Martin

    Agreed with Jason.

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