Walking in Circles Might Not Just Be a Feeling

The notion that one is walking around in circles has a long history in personal introspection. While many people are marvelously capable of plotting out a straight and defined course to follow, others may feel as though the path ahead is as obscured and winding as it gets. And in both circumstances, people can easily veer off-course, leading to feelings of uncertainty or being lost.

Such themes are common throughout the human experience, and tend to affect those in nearly every situation, no matter their personal background or current situation, from time to time. Despite this fairly common occurrence, however, most people are likely to report that they are able to physically navigate with precision. Challenging this idea, a study centered at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics set out to find if walking in circles is more than a metaphor.

The immediate results of the study suggest that, indeed, walking in circles isn’t just a visually interesting way to describe a difficult situation. The study sent a series of people into the desert as well as the forest, equipping them with GPS devices to help track their movements. While not all subjects eventually walked in perfect or complete circles, the trend was decidedly towards moving away from the straight line on which they were instructed to journey. Results showed that performance was lowered at night, and that in the presence of a cloudy sky, walking in complete circles was significantly more probable.

The study may not have a workable tool ready for implementation in therapy, but it does have the potential to spark new discussions about the feeling of walking in circles and the body’s actual aptitude to maintain a straight course. As a growing number of therapy types and practitioners begin to incorporate physical activity into their sessions, therapy meetings of the future may include practice in walking along a straight line, encouraging the body and the mind alike to learn to navigate.

© Copyright 2009 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Charlie


    September 2nd, 2009 at 4:42 PM

    What an odd study… It’s something I never would have thought of. I’ve always thought of “going in circles” as a metaphor.

  • Victor


    September 2nd, 2009 at 4:55 PM

    Very interesting…Other than the obvious results, this study also proves that people under stress do not perform as optimally as without it, they tend to go wrong under difficult circumstances. Having a GPS(a guide) is very important in life…to keep us on track and to help us perform optimally as far as possible.

  • Kaye


    September 3rd, 2009 at 9:47 AM

    I agree with Charlie. I guess I fail to see the significance in a study like this, mainly because I think that the ways that people think are totally unrelated to how they travel.

  • Elizabeth R.

    Elizabeth R.

    September 7th, 2009 at 6:20 PM

    It is a strange topic. I saw a show once that said we tend unconsciously to veer off in the direction of our dominant hand when we have the equal choice of going right or left.

    They illustrated this by putting a group of people, half left handed and half right handed, on an empty tour bus and telling them to sit anywhere. The bus boarders had no idea why they were being asked to do so. Interestingly almost without fail each chose to be seated on the side of the bus that matched their dominant hand.

  • liz


    December 19th, 2009 at 7:09 PM

    I am not surprised to read about this research. Circles have very much been significant to human expression and life.
    The expression of circles are seen in drawings of young children and in architecture, and in religious sybolism, in art .
    Mandalas are sacred circles. Labyrinths are circlular pathways moving towards the centre then from the centre back to the entrance again.

    walking the labryinth has been linked to healing body and soul, meditation and prayer, peace and joy.

    So perhaps we are one step closer to understand why circles, creating circles and walking in circles is so significant for human beings.

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