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The path less travelled

Ever wondered why your daily commute seems to feel longer and more boring as the days come and go? Yes? Well, so did a team of scientists at Manchester University, UK. Now, Andrew Compton and his colleagues think they have discovered the reason why.

Crompton’s team asked 140 architecture students from the University to estimate the distance between the student-union building to a familiar destination along a straight road. The research published in Nature today explains that they were effectively asked to guess the length of journeys they would have strolled (or staggered, says the press release!) many times.

First-year students estimated a mile-long path to be around 1.24 miles on average, whereas third year students stretched it to 1.45 miles. [That's heavy precision, mind you and one can only hope that Manchester architecture students were not so nerdy as to actually give the distance with three significant figure accuracy, Ed.] Anyway, the results matched a theory that distances elongate in our minds because, over time, we begin to notice more and more details about the route.

To test this idea further, Crompton asked a second group of students to estimate 500 metres [they've switched from imperial to metric within two paragraphs!] in the cluttered tourist village of Portmeirion, Wales [home of 1960s cult TV show The Prisoner] and again on a road in Manchester city. The village distance seemed further.

The findings could help to explain why the walk to a destination sometimes feels shorter than the journey back. And, notes Crompton, it could help architects design cities that feel more spacious, simply by packing in more details for people to look at.

I’d also like to suggest that the work could make everyone’s daily commute seem much shorter by making us travel in boring smooth-walled tunnels, with very little to read and no interesting stimuli. What? They do that, already? Surely not!

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