Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Long Walk (or the Short Run) Home reports that a UK researcher, Andrew Crompton of Manchester University, has provided evidence confirming the theory that individuals judge familiar routes to be longer than unfamiliar ones. The more well-traversed a particular distance, say from our home to the corner grocery, the greater we exaggerate the actual distance involved.

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.

It's an interesting finding, but hardly one worth remarking upon. Except for one thing: it entirely diverges from my own empirical observations.
The headline drew my attention precisely because I have long commented, to myself and my others, how much shorter familiar paths feel than unfamiliar ones. When running.

When I run outdoors I prefer familiar, well-known paths to unexplored trails. Even when the actual distance is the same the familiar trail invariably feels like a shorter, easier run for me. Which is exactly the opposite of the conclusion drawn by Andrew Crompton's various studies.

So what's the explanation? Is Compton wrong? Are my experiences an anomaly? Or is there a more intuitive explanation premised on the difference between running and walking (or driving)?

My own off-the-cuff theory is this: running, at least for many people, involves blocking out external distractions and getting into a rhythm. Marathoners (as well as other athletes) frequently talk about finding "the zone." I'm no marathoner, but I do like to zone out while I run. Listening to music, watching TV, running on a treadmill, all these things help that process along. So does running along familiar terrain past well-known scenery.

On the other hand, new terrain provides the precise distractions that keep me from finding the zone while I run. If I'm forced to pay attention to where I put my feet, to the details of my surroundings (never know when you might be approaching a blind intersection, or a grizzly crossing, or some other obstacle) it's hard for me to detach my mind from my feet and settle in to my run. Consequently I find myself working harder and the run seems longer.

Does this explain why familiar running routes feel shorter to me? Perhaps. Does it help reconcile my experiences with Crompton's data? I'm not sure that it does. Does any of this matter one bit to you? I'd be shocked.


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