Walking – or Swimming — in Circles
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on August 23rd, 2009

An article in the NY Times described the tendency of people, who lack visual cues, to walk in circles. This is precisely what happens to swimmers in open water. Here’s a brief summary of the Times article:

When hiking in the woods, many people will literally walk in circles, according to research conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen Germany and published in the journal Current Biology

Dr. Jan L. Souman, and colleagues tracked the movements of volunteers walking in a German forest and Tunisian desert. If the sun or moon was out, the volunteers were able to walk in a relatively straight line. But lacking them, they looped back on themselves, often several times.

According to Dr. Souman this happens when the brain lacks a reliable visual cue to help interpret other input. The brain arrives at a sense of direction in part via kinesthetic cues —  a sense of speed or direction which register in the inner ear,  internal perceptions of how the muscles and bones are moving. But it takes at least one stable landmark — the sun, moon, a distant peak or building — to organize all the other data.

This is the central challenge facing swimmers to navigate in open water.


In the video clip below from the 2006 World Masters Open Water championship, notice how many of the swimmers around me lift the head nearly every stroke to try to get their bearings. Having been there, I can vouch that about all they could see was the back of the next wave. Yet they kept looking repeatedly even so.

This is because — being pool swimmers — they’re used to having clear and constant visual cues – the line on the bottom, the approaching wall. When those cues are absent a primitive, non-rational part of the brain sends signals to keep looking regardless. It requires a conscious effort to stop looking and seek information elsewhere.

The reasons I was able to navigate without lifting my head repeatedly are (1) I’ve purposefully practiced swimming long distances without looking — to overcome the urge to look; and (2), I knew the course followed the shore for about 200 meters so I just breathed to the shore side and maintained a constant distance from it.

As the video illustrates, not looking (and sneaking a peek when I did look) was a key element in my overall efficiency, allowing me to pass quite a few other swimmers as they struggled amidst the waves.

This video clip is taken from Outside the Box, our DVD on open water skills and strategy.

Chapters 13 through 15 of my latest book – also called Outside the Box – explain how to navigate effectively when visual cues are lacking. Download a free excerpt here.

3 Responses to “Walking – or Swimming — in Circles”

  1. I lately came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first remark. I don

  2. Barbara, was your comment interrupted or incomplete?

  3. Thank you for this article, this is exactly what I needed this morning 😀

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