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Anchor Needed to Prevent Lostness

Science writer Michael Bond is a bit of an expert in the traumatic subject of lostness. He writes that being lost is a fear that runs deep in our psyche and culture:

Children lost in the woods is a common a motif in modern fairy tales and in ancient mythology. Usually in fiction there is some kind of redemption: Snow White is rescued by dwarfs and even Hansel and Gretel, facing certain doom in the gingerbread house, find their way home. Reality is often more grim: During the 18th and 19th centuries, getting lost was one of the most common causes of death among the children of European settlers in the North American wilderness.

Science researcher Dr. Jan Souman used GPS monitors to track numerous volunteers as they tried to walk in a straight line without tech through Germany’s Bienwald forest and the Sahara Desert. When clouds obstructed the sun errors quickly accumulated, small deviations became large ones, and they ended up walking in circles. With no external cues to help them, people will not travel more than around 100 meters from their starting position, regardless of how long they walk for. This says a lot about our spatial system and what it requires to anchor us to our surroundings.

In the absence of landmarks and boundaries, our head-direction cells can’t compute direction and distance, and leave us flailing in space. Above all pay careful attention … when you go into the woods.

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