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The path less traveled feels shorter

February 10, 2006 By Helen Pearson This article courtesy of Nature News.

Details on a journey may create an illusion of distance.

The more times we have walked a route, the longer we judge it to be, a UK researcher has confirmed. His studies could help explain why daily commutes can grow to seem interminably long.

Neuroscientists have long known that our brains are poor at estimating a set distance such as a kilometre. But most studies of this phenomenon have been carried out in simple artificial environments where, for example, people walk along paths taped out in a gymnasium.

Andrew Crompton at Manchester University, UK, wanted to see how good we are at judging distances in the real world.

He asked 140 architecture students in their first, second and third years of study to estimate the distance from the university's student-union building to familiar destinations along a straight road, so the length of journeys that they would have strolled (or staggered) many times.

The more times students had walked the route, the further they estimated the journey to be. First year students, for example, estimated a mile-long path to be around 1.24 miles on average, while third year students stretched it to 1.45 miles. Crompton publishes his results in Environment and Behavior1.

The results match those from other studies in which, for example, people moving through a virtual world tend to overestimate how far they have travelled. "It seems to fit in with an emerging theme," says Laurence Harris who has carried out such experiments at York University in Toronto.

Knowing your route

The finding backs the idea that distances elongate in our minds because, over time, we begin to notice more and more minutiae about a route, an idea called the feature-accumulation theory. "As detail accumulates, the distance seems to get bigger," Crompton says.

To test this idea, he took a group of students to Portmeirion, a small Italianate village on the North Wales coast in which the eccentric buildings are small and colourful.

After walking around the tourist spot, students guessed that a 500-metre-long path in the village was around three times its actual length. The same students estimated a 500-metre path in the less-eccentric and more familiar city of Manchester to be around 1.6 times its length2.

Tricks of perception

There could be other explanations for some of Crompton's findings. A walk by the third-year students might have seemed further than it was simply because the students took longer to amble along a familiar or picturesque route, for example.

But the finding does gel with neuroscientists' ideas that distance, like time, is an abstract concept in our brains, rather than an absolute one. "The world isn't just a picture; it depends on how you engage with it," says James Wise, who studies how people perceive environments at Washington State University, Tri-Cities.

"They're a couple of great little papers," adds Wise. "Crompton has a very ingenious way of using the real world as a laboratory."

Crompton next plans to test how far a mile seems to students in a variety of other spaces, from airfields to forests and the road-tangled British town of Milton Keynes.

The long road home

The studies might help to account for the anecdotal experience that a walk to a destination sometimes feels shorter than the journey back; or that a regular commute seems to lengthen with time.

Further experiments are needed to find out precisely what is going on in the brain when we attempt to gauge distance. One option is to use a virtual reality simulator, in which it is possible to have walkers navigate down routes with strictly controlled numbers of twists, turns, and landmarks, in order to weed out what makes the biggest difference to our perception of distance.

Whatever the cause of the effect, it might prove useful to architects and urban planners, says Crompton. His results support the idea that buildings or towns incorporating irregularities or details feel more spacious than plainer cityscapes, he notes. "We can make space out of nothing."


  1. Crompton A., et al. Environment and Behavior, 38 . 173 - 182 (2006).
  2. Crompton A., et al. Environment and Behavior, (in the press).


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