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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Why Humans Totally Freak Out When They Get Lost

One day in October 2015, a forest surveyor working in an area of dense woodland near Mount Redington in Maine came across a collapsed tent hidden in the undergrowth. He noticed a backpack, some clothes, a sleeping bag, and inside the sleeping bag what he assumed was a human skull. He took a photograph, then hurried out of the woods and called his boss. The news soon reached Kevin Adam, the search and rescue coordinator for the Maine Warden Service, who immediately guessed what the surveyor had found. He wrote later, "From what I could see of the location on the map and what I saw in the picture, I was almost certain it would be Gerry Largay."

Geraldine Largay, a 66-year-old retired nurse from Tennessee, had gone missing near Redington in July 2013 while attempting to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail, a national hiking route that stretches more than 2,100 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in central Maine. Her disappearance triggered one of the biggest search and rescue operations in the state’s history. Over two years, it failed to uncover a single clue. Until the surveyor stumbled on her camp, no one had any idea what had become of her.

This was Gerry’s dream trip. She had set off with a friend, Jane Lee, on April 23, 2013, from Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. They had planned to hike the trail "flip-flop" style, walking north to Katahdin then driving back to Harpers Ferry, before continuing south to Springer. They had help: Gerry’s husband, George, was shadowing them in his car, resupplying them at prearranged locations and occasionally taking them to a motel for a rest. They made good progress, and by the end of June were in New Hampshire. A family emergency forced Jane to return home, but Gerry carried on alone. She was slow, managing about a mile each hour (she adopted the trail name "Inchworm," in recognition of her larval pace). Her sense of direction wasn’t great, but she was well equipped. She was a meticulous planner—she always knew where to find water and shelter—and her gregariousness and warmth won her many friends among fellow hikers. One of them, Dorothy Rust, told The Boston Globe, "She was just full of confidence and joy, a real delight to talk to."

Rust and her hiking partner, who were walking south, encountered Gerry at the Poplar Ridge lean-to, a shelter just south of the stretch in Redington where Gerry went missing. They were the last people to see her alive. At around 6:30 on the morning of July 22, they watched her gather her things, eat breakfast, and strap on her rucksack. Rust took a photo of her. The Warden Service’s case report states that Gerry was wearing a "blue kerchief, red long sleeve top, tan shorts, hiking boots, blue backpack, distinctive eye-glasses, big smile." They are all there in that picture. She looks set for the trail.

Forty-five minutes after leaving Poplar Ridge, Gerry texted George to tell him she was on her way. They had arranged to meet at a road crossing 21 miles up the trail the following evening. The first anyone knew that something was wrong was when she failed to show up for that rendezvous. George waited a day, then alerted the Warden Service, which instigated its well-rehearsed lost-person procedure. Over the following weeks, hundreds of professional rescuers and trained volunteers searched the woods around Redington. They found nothing: no shred of clothing, no sign of a camp. The investigation and many of the searchers carried on for the next 26 months, until her body was found. Only then did they get some answers.

The day after the surveyor’s gruesome discovery, Kevin Adam and his fellow wardens retrieved the remains of her camp and went through her phone records and her journal, which she had wrapped in a watertight bag, to try to piece together what had happened. They learnt that she had left the trail during the morning of July 22 a few miles from the Poplar Ridge shelter to go to the bathroom and couldn’t find her way back. Most likely she went no more than 80 paces into the woods—this was her usual practice. Disorientated in the tangle of trees and brush, she started wandering. At 11:01 am she sent a text to George: "In somm trouble. Got off trail to go to br. Now lost. Can u call AMC [Appalachian Mountain Club] to c if a trail maintainer can help me. Somewhere north of woods road. xox." Unfortunately she was in an area with no cell phone coverage, and neither this nor her subsequent texts got through. The following afternoon she tried again: "Lost since yesterday. Off trail 3 or 4 miles. Call police for what to do pls. xox." That night she pitched her tent on the highest ground she could find. She heard the spotter planes and helicopters looking for her and she did her best to be seen. She tried to light a fire. She draped her reflective emergency blanket on a tree. She waited.

On August 6, Gerry used her phone for the last time, though she kept writing in her journal for four more days. By then, she knew what was coming. She left a note for her would-be rescuers: "When you find my body please call my husband George and my daughter Kerry, it will be the greatest kindness for them to know that I am dead and where you found me—no matter how many years from now. Please find it in your heart to mail the contents of this bag to one of them." She survived at least 19 days on her own in the wilderness before succumbing to the effects of exposure and starvation, longer than many experts believed possible. She did not know that a dog team had passed within 100 yards of her, that her campsite was only half a mile from the trail as the crow flies, or that if she had walked downhill she would have soon reached an old railroad track that would have taken her, in either direction, straight out of the woods.

To be lost is a dreadful thing. Most people are unsettled by the slightest threat of it. Fear of being lost appears to be hardwired in the human brain, as visceral as our response to snakes: Millions of years of evolution have taught us that the experience tends not to end well.

The fear runs deep in the culture. Children lost in the woods is as common a motif in modern fairy tales as in ancient mythology. Usually in fiction there is some kind of redemption: Romulus and Remus are saved by a she-wolf; 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. "Scarcely a summer passes over the colonists in Canada without losses of children from the families of settlers occurring in the vast forests of the backwoods," the Canadian writer Susanna Moodie noted in 1852. Moodie’s sister, Catharine Parr Traill, another pioneer and writer, based her own novel Canadian Crusoes: A Tale of the Rice Lake Plains on real-life stories of children who walked into the woods and couldn’t find their way home. Canadian Crusoes is set in Ontario, a few hundred miles west of Maine, yet Traill’s depiction of the wilderness could have been written about the forest that engulfed Gerry Largay: "The utter loneliness of the path, the grotesque shadows of the trees that stretched in long array across the steep banks on either side, taking now this, now that wild and fanciful shape, awakened strange feelings of dread in the mind of these poor forlorn wanderers."

Being lost is still synonymous with tragedy in the public mind. In 2002, a survey commissioned by the UK Forestry Commission found that many people steer clear of forests because they feel vulnerable and worry that they won’t be able to find their way out again. The commission concluded that "folklore, fairy tales and horror films" have taken their toll on our sensibilities, and that "people are genuinely terrified of getting lost." They have good reason to be.

In the age of GPS, we forget how easy it can be to get disorientated, and we are often fooled into thinking we know the world around us. Common cognitive errors, such as the assumption that ridges, coastlines, and other geographical features run parallel to each other, are easily corrected by a compass or mapping app. But technology, just like our brains, can also lead us astray when we are unsure how to use it or are unaware of its fallibilities. When the aviator Francis Chichester was teaching navigation to RAF pilots during the Second World War, two of his students went missing during an exercise. Chichester searched for them for days in his light aircraft in the Welsh hills, without success. Three months later, he heard that they were prisoners of war: They had misread their compass and flown 180 degrees in the wrong direction, traveling southeast instead of northwest, and had crossed the English Channel thinking it was the Bristol Channel. "They were grateful when an airfield put up a cone of searchlights for them," Chichester recounted in his autobiography, "and it was not until they had finished their landing run on the airstrip and a German soldier poked a tommy-gun into the cockpit that they realised that they were not on an English airfield." This was the wartime equivalent of following a satnav into a river.

It is hard to predict how someone who is lost will behave, though it’s safe to assume—as search and rescue leaders always do—that they won’t do much to help themselves. Few people manage to do what is often the most sensible thing and stay put. Most feel compelled to keep moving, and so throw themselves into the unknown in the hope that an escape route will appear. Accounts by people who have been lost show that this urge to move is extremely hard to resist, even among skilled navigators. Ralph Bagnold, a pioneer of desert exploration in North Africa during the 1930s and 1940s and founder of the British Army’s Long Range Desert Group, recalled being seized by "an extraordinarily powerful impulse" to carry on driving, in any direction, after losing his way in the Western Desert in Egypt. He considered it a kind of madness. "This psychological effect … has been the cause of nearly every desert disaster of recent years," he wrote. "If one can stay still even for half an hour and have a meal or smoke a pipe, reason returns to work out the problem of location." When you’re lost, fight (or rather, freeze) is better than flight, at least until you’ve made a plan. Does knowing this help you drop anchor? Up to a point. Hugo Spiers, who studies how animals and humans navigate space, inadvertently became his own test subject during an expedition to the Amazon basin in Peru. He asked the guards at his camp if he could go for a walk in the jungle. Don’t go too far, they told him:

So I didn’t go far, but it’s the jungle, and ten metres into the jungle is enough to be completely disorientated. I was lost in this jungle for two hours. They sent a dog out to find me. I wasn’t the first person to have a dog sent out. It was terrifying. My brain just wanted me to run. Just run. Just keep moving. I was very aware that that was not the right strategy. Keeping moving in the jungle is not going to save your life. So I tried to calm down and think carefully and not react at high speed and look at my environment, and I realized I was going in circles, exactly like in the movies. I was using a machete to mark big trees, laying down a thread, to know if I’d come that way before. That was starting to work. I’d mark a tree with three slashes and if I ended up back at that tree I knew I’d gone in a circle. I was nearly back at the camp when they sent the dog out, but it was a huge relief. It just made me very aware that being really, really lost is quite terrifying. It’s not a normal thing.

Some years ago Kenneth Hill, a psychologist at St Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada, who has dedicated his career to studying how lost people behave, reviewed more than 800 search and rescue reports from his home province of Nova Scotia, which is 80 percent forest and is known as the "lost person capital of North America." In Nova Scotia you can get lost by stepping away from your backyard. He found only two cases out of those 800-plus in which the lost person had stayed put: an 80-year-old woman out picking apples, and an 11-year-old boy who had taken a "Hug a Tree and Survive" course at school (as the name implies, it teaches kids to stay where they are). He says most lost people are stationary when they are found, but only because they have run themselves into the ground and are too tired or ill to continue.

The compulsion to move, no matter what, is likely an evolutionary adaptation: In prehistoric times, hanging around in a place you didn’t know would probably have ensured you were eaten by predators. More confusing is another quirk of lost behavior, the tendency to walk in circles when you can’t see any spatial cues (this doesn’t only happen in the movies). In dense woodland, on a boundless plain or in fog, it is almost impossible to walk in a straight line for more than a few meters. This perverse habit could have its uses: As you panic-charge through the forest or across the open moor, at least you can reckon on ending up somewhere in the vicinity of where you started and no worse off than you were before. It’s a small consolation.

Circling happens where there are no prominent landmarks (a cell phone mast or a tall tree, for example) or spatial boundaries (a fence or a line of hills), and where all the vistas look similar. Without a fixed reference point, we drift. A view of the sun or the moon can help keep us grounded, though the sun is a dangerous guide if you’re not aware of how it moves across the sky. In an appendix to Canadian Crusoes, Catharine Traill relates the true story of a girl who, lost in the woods of Ontario for three weeks, believed the sun would lead her out and so followed it hopefully all day as it arced from east to west and thus, inevitably, found herself at night in almost the same place she had been that morning.

The idea that in places without landmarks, disorientation causes people to walk in circles or to loop back on themselves seems improbable, but many experiments have found it to be true. One popular theory blames body asymmetry: We all have one leg longer than the other, which can cause us to veer. But this doesn’t explain why some people veer both ways depending on where they are.

In 2009, Jan Souman tracked volunteers using GPS monitors as they attempted to walk in a straight line through the Sahara Desert and Germany’s Bienwald forest. When the sun wasn’t visible, none of them managed it: Errors quickly accumulated, small deviations became large ones, and they ended up walking in circles. Souman concluded that 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. Unlike the desert ant, humans are not good at dead reckoning, which in desert, forest, and fog is all you can do. In the absence of landmarks and boundaries, our head-direction cells and grid cells, which normally do an excellent job at keeping us on track, can’t compute direction and distance, and leave us flailing in space. This knowledge won’t help you if you’re lost, but it might persuade you to pack a compass or a GPS tracker before you set out, and above all to pay careful attention—the wayfinder’s golden rule—when you go into the woods.

The route of the Appalachian Trail is marked by a system of white rectangular "blazes" painted on trees, posts, and rocks every 20 or 30 meters. It is a well-trodden path: You can meet a dozen other people every day even on the less accessible sections. Around 20 trail hikers go missing in Maine each year, but almost all of them are found within a couple of days. For someone to get irretrievably lost is extremely rare. Why did it happen to Gerry?

When she went missing, a few press reports suggested she had underestimated the difficulties of "thru-hiking" the entire length of the trail. Her friend Jane Lee told investigators that as well as having a poor sense of direction, Gerry had become slower and less confident, and was scared of being alone. Her doctor said she had a long-term anxiety issue and could be prone to panic attacks—she had been prescribed medication, but apparently wasn’t carrying it. Her husband George noticed that she had been finding the hike increasingly hard, and he had worried that she might be "in over her head."

None of this adds up as an explanation. Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is hard, but Gerry seemed to be holding up well. Dorothy Rust told The Boston Globe that she "really had her wits about her." Gerry had spent years preparing for the trip and had completed several long practice hikes. Since leaving West Virginia she had walked over 900 miles, which made her more experienced than most people on the trail. If she wasn’t taking her anxiety medication, it’s likely that she wasn’t feeling anxious. She was focused on her dream, and she was on track to achieve it.

The mistake she made was an easy one to make. The forest in the Redington section of the Appalachian Trail has a dense understory. Eighty paces from the path, it looks the same in every direction. If you fail to pay attention when you walk in—the wayfinder’s fatal error—there is nothing to help you retrace your steps: no landmarks, no boundaries, no white blazes on a wayside tree. Much of the area is owned by the US Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school, which teaches pilots and special forces personnel how to survive behind enemy lines. The Navy chose it because it’s hard to escape from.

Local people say that if you leave the trail in this part of Maine, it’s easy to be lost. "I learnt that lesson," says Jim Bridge, who manages one of the state’s search and rescue dog teams. "Like Gerry, I had gone off the trail to go to the bathroom, and when I came back I walked right across it. You’re used to this beaten path, which draws a line in your mind, but in the other direction there’s no line, it’s effectively a dot. It’s easy to look back and not see it." Hikers know this too. In a forum about Gerry’s case on the discussion website Reddit, a contributor who had hiked the trail in 2000 commented:

She was in one of the more rugged sections of trail, and while what happened was tragic, nothing she did was foolish. I personally know hundreds of people that have hiked the whole trail. Not one of us are asking ourselves "How could she get lost peeing" or "Why didn’t she have a map and compass." We are mourning the loss of a fellow hiker, and know that in slightly different circumstances, this could have happened to any of us when we had to wander off the trail even a few feet.

Forests and woods are a challenge for wayfinding because they lack distinguishing features. "They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs," writes Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods, his memoir of a hike along the Appalachian Trail. In forests there is no long view, which makes it like navigating in fog. "Anyone who spends enough time in the woods will, sooner or later, become lost," says Kenneth Hill. The vast forests of the eastern United States, thronged with tangled undergrowth and towering canopies, can feel daunting and oppressive. The Scottish settlers who emigrated there from the tree-less Highlands in the 18th and 19th centuries in hope of a better life found them discouraging to say the least. "Dreary and pestilential solitudes … one of the most dismal and impressive landscapes on which the eye of man ever rested," is how one visitor remembered them in 1831.

The current inhabitants of Maine are rather fond of their forests, but they are also in awe of their capacity to swallow people up. Almost everyone around Redington volunteers for the local search and rescue team or has done so in the past. Everyone knows the stories of those who were lost and found, as well as those who were never found. Lost is the existential enemy, the ever present threat. In these parts, it is as salient a danger as it was 200 years ago, or indeed in prehistoric times. Gerry was ready for the trail. She had done her homework. She had ticked off nearly a thousand miles and was set for a thousand more. But she wasn’t ready for the wilderness, for the solitude beyond the path. Few people ever are.

People who have been truly lost never forget the experience. Suddenly disconnected from all that surrounds them, they are plunged into a relationship with an utterly alien world. They think they are going to die. Horror-struck, their behavior becomes so confounding that finding them is as much a psychological challenge as a geographical one. One ranger with 30 years’ experience told me, "You’ll never be able to figure out why lost people make their decisions."

Lost is a cognitive state. Your internal map has become detached from the external world, and nothing in your spatial memory matches what you see. But at its core, it is an emotional state. It delivers a psychic double whammy: Not only are you stricken with fear, you also lose your ability to reason. You suffer what neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux calls a "hostile takeover of consciousness by emotion." 90 percent of people make things a lot worse for themselves when they realize they are lost—by running, for instance. Because they are afraid, they can’t solve problems or figure out what to do. They fail to notice landmarks, or fail to remember them. They lose track of how far they’ve travelled. They feel claustrophobic, as if their surroundings are closing in on them. They can’t help it; it’s a quick-fire evolutionary response. Robert Koester, a search and rescue specialist with a background in neurobiology, describes it as a "full-flown fight-or-flight catecholamine1 dump. It’s essentially a panic attack. If you are lost out in the woods there is a chance you will die. That’s pretty real. You feel like you’re separating from reality. You feel like you’re going crazy."


Veteran adventurers are as susceptible to this as novices. In 1873, a contributor to the science journal Nature reported that in the forested mountains of West Virginia, "even the most experienced hunters … are liable to a kind of seizure; that they may 'lose their head' all at once, and become convinced that they are going in quite the contrary direction to what they had intended." This feeling of disorientation, he continued, "is accompanied by great nervousness and a general sense of dismay and upset." The subject was of considerable academic interest at the time—the writer was responding to an article in a previous issue by Charles Darwin, in which he argued that the distress caused by disorientation "leads to the suspicion that some part of the brain is specialized for the function of direction." Just over a century later, the physiologist James Ranck discovered head-direction cells in the dorsal presubiculum of a rat, proving Darwin right.

It is common for lost people to lose their head as well as their heading direction. Stories of people walking "trance-like" past search parties, or running off and having to be chased down and tackled, are part of search and rescue lore. Ed Cornell, the psychologist who studies lost person behavior, says it is very difficult to interview someone just after they’ve been found: "They are basically scrambled" and can remember little about what happened to them.

Occasionally, lost people become delusional. In the winter of 1847, the railway surveyor John Grant became separated from his colleagues while investigating a route for a new line through a forest in New Brunswick. He spent the next five days and nights wandering the wilderness without a tent or food before being rescued, hours from death. During this time he frequently heard voices, and at one point he stumbled on what he thought was a Native American and his family leaning against a tree:

I hallowed, but to my utter amazement not the slightest notice was taken or reply made … I approached, but they receded and appeared to shun me; I became annoyed and persisted, but in vain, in trying to attract their notice. The dreadful truth at length flashed upon my mind: it was really no more than an illusion, and that one of the most perfect description. Melancholy forebodings arose. I began to wonder fearfully if I were going mad.

Psychologists have gathered lots of evidence that stress and anxiety affect the cognitive functions that are essential to wayfinding. Much of it comes from research involving military recruits. In one study, Charles Morgan, a forensic psychiatrist at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, tested the mental performance of pilots and aircrew at the US Navy’s SERE school, near where Gerry Largay went missing, as they underwent survival training.


Morgan used a common psychological exercise in which the subject is asked to copy a line drawing, known as the Rey Ostereith Complex Figure (ROCF), and then reproduce it from memory. The ROCF test is a measure of visuo-spatial processing and working memory, both of which are needed for map reading, spatial awareness, planning a route, and other navigation tasks. He found that recruits who completed the exercise while confined in the school’s notoriously oppressive mock prisoner-of-war camp performed exceptionally poorly. Not only did they have trouble remembering the figure, they also copied it piecemeal, segment by segment, an approach usually taken by children under 10.

Morgan calls this "seeing the trees rather than the forest." It is how most of us behave when we’re highly anxious: The big picture eludes us as our cognitive map disintegrates. A common problem faced by air-ambulance crews is the inability of those making the emergency call to identify where they are or describe their location, a cognitive misstep that is almost certainly caused by stress. "No one gets smarter under stress," says Morgan. "The question, really, is who gets dumb faster."

What does our powerful response to being lost tell us about our relationship with space? For one thing, it shows how important it is for us to be grounded in physical reality and to have a sense of place—however much time we spend in our digital worlds, we still need to know where we are. Where we are has a big impact on how we feel. Places can frighten and excite us, and make us feel safe. Cognitive maps are atlases of feeling as much as geometry; they capture emotional as well as spatial information. It can be hard to separate the two: People who have been hopelessly lost in a place are usually not keen to go back, and they may avoid visiting anywhere that looks similar. The terror they felt has become part of the landscape.

Updated 5/15/2020 5:18 pm EST: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the province of Nova Scotia as a state.

Excerpt adapted from From Here to There: The Art and Science of Finding and Losing Our Way, by Michael Bond, published by Harvard University Press.

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