How the World’s Foremost Maze-Maker Leads People Astray

Elsewhere in the maze, there were long stretches without any junctions. Oskar van Deventer, a Dutch telecom engineer and a renowned designer of mechanical puzzles, told me, “This is something you will recognize in all Adrian Fisher mazes: that it has some long corridors with no decision to be made.” This provides the choice-fatigued aspirant with a brief, blissful break, but, of course, as I discovered when I hit one and thought I must finally be on the right track, it also serves Fisher’s wily purposes. “A long journey with no choices reinforces the feeling that either you’re going to solve it—or you’re getting very lost,” Fisher explained.

Escot’s bridges are similarly misleading: I approached my first with a sense of relief, only to discover that they offer just enough vertical perspective to make you think you can plan your route but too little to actually figure out the whole maze. “It’s sort of, like, Let me give you a hint that’s not as much of a hint as you think it is,” Rothstein said. “It tantalizes.”

Fisher had even employed the classic Runcie trick: a turn toward the periphery in order to reach the center. Hugo Spiers, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, told me he has found that humans are seemingly helpless to resist the magnetic attraction of a goal. “They kind of hedge-scan when they know they’re near the goal,” he said. “They look over to it, like they’re longing to get to it.” That single-minded focus makes it all too easy to discount paths that lead backward, away from the goal. At Escot, the bridges, as well as several paths that run immediately around the edge of the goal without providing access to it, offer tempting views of the maze’s central tower, while the path to reach the center requires aspirants to maintain their distance, travelling under rather than over the bridges.

At Escot, a series of gates allows groundskeepers direct access to the maze’s interior.

Van Deventer, who lives near another Fisher hedge maze, Europe’s largest, built at the point where the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany meet, attempted to make me feel better about my miserable maze-solving skills. “In that maze, the final path to the exit is going outwards, so you have to walk away from your goal,” he said. “And, for the first and the second time there, I missed that one path, so Adrian’s trickery works on me, even though I may be prepared for it.”

Fisher frequently likens his role as a maze designer to that of a chess player faced with unusual constraints. “I have to play all my moves in advance, and I have to let you win, and I have to let you win just before you’ve had enough,” he said. “I’m here to entertain.” Part of a maze’s amusement value lies in presenting a decent yet surmountable challenge; the other part involves engineering the conditions for a fun family day out. After all, chess is, like most puzzles, a fairly solitary activity. Mazes, on the other hand, tend to be social spaces, and Fisher’s designs are especially, and intentionally, so.

“I’m not bragging,” van Deventer told me, “but I believe that by walking through a maze I’m able to recognize whether it is an Adrian Fisher.” One of the clues, he said, is long loops that repeatedly throw people back together. “We’ve seen you before,” a young woman at Escot said as we passed each other going in opposite directions. Two little girls huddled under one of the pergolas, developing a leaf-based divination system; when we came across them again, at the center, they explained that the leaves had failed to provide the solution, but that they’d found a spot where a very small person could squeeze through the hedge instead. Running into the same people while failing at the same puzzle fosters a curious camaraderie; even when we were visually alone, we could hear the comforting sounds of our comrades-in-confusion through the hedge walls.

“I think he is the world’s best maze psychologist,” van Deventer said. “He has a mental model of what people would be doing, and he is using that against the unsuspecting solver and even against the suspecting solver.”

One day in 1898, Edmund Sanford, a leading professor of psychology at Clark University, was discussing the extraordinary navigational skills of rats with two graduate students, Linus Kline and Willard Small. Kline later recalled that Sanford, having just returned from a trip to London, “at once suggested the possibility of using the pattern of the Hampton Court maze for purposes of constructing a ‘home-finding’ apparatus.” Kline, who had never heard of a maze, looked up the design of Hampton Court’s horticultural puzzle in the Encyclopædia Britannica, warped it to fit into a square box, scaled it down to rodent height, and replaced the hedges with gnaw-resistant mesh. A few years later, Small published the first research on the intelligence of white rats, as evidenced by their maze-solving ability. Together, as the historian of psychology C. James Goodwin has written, “they launched a rats-in-mazes tradition that continues to this day.”

For decades, the behavior of albino rats in mazes—and, by extension, that of the humans who studied them—was turned into a science: something that could be explained and, ultimately, engineered. As a challenge, the maze translated well across species, unlike tests involving, say, symbols or color; as a model, the maze was “the most general, the most representative, and the most perfect” simulation of the larger, choice-filled problem of life itself, as Rebecca Lemov writes in “World as Laboratory,” a history of behavioral research. For a new generation of researchers, mazes became “a shorthand way of asking, ‘Why does the self behave as it does?’ ”

Over time, the Hampton Court design has been superseded: today’s cognitive-enhancement-drug trials are typically carried out in something called the Morris water maze, in which swimming rats must respond to various spatial cues to reach a platform. Still, the importance of mazes in research persists, as does the sense that mazes reveal something about our minds. The great Italian Renaissance mathematician Luca Pacioli, who laid the foundations of modern accounting by inventing double-entry bookkeeping, suggested that mazelike puzzles might be a useful tool to “sharpen the ingenuity of youths,” in much the same way that sudoku is now recommended for seniors.

Speculation about the point of a maze leads, inevitably, to the question of why one would choose to get lost in the first place. The psychologist Kenneth Hill, an emeritus professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who spent his career doing seminal work studying how lost people behave, told me that he found it hard to see the attraction of a maze. “When I talk to people who’ve been lost, they say it’s the scariest, most frightening thing they’ve ever experienced,” he said. “That’s not something I want to pay to do.”

On the other hand, with rare exceptions, no one dies in a maze: like a roller coaster, it’s a safe way to experience danger. And, assuming you reach the goal and then make it out, you will come away with a sense of triumph—a tamer version of the heroic narrative that Hill has found is common among people who have been truly lost. “If you talk to them right away, they can’t say much—they’re still in shock,” he said. “If you wait a couple of days, what you get is this saga about conquering their emotions and their fears and how they pushed through.”

Some scientists hope that understanding the ways in which humans get lost in mazes will offer useful insights into how to design the built environment, as well as techniques we can use to train ourselves to pay better attention to our surroundings. As Spiers told me, “A major part of being human and living life is adapting to change, remembering what you can do, exploiting shortcuts to get to your goal—the kind of flexibility of thinking you need to navigate a maze.” My repeated returns to the mouth of the Escot maze illustrated the point: the puzzle would not change, which meant that my approach had to.

“Well, that was up to the usual high standard,” Fisher said as we exited the Escot maze. While I said hello to Escot’s newly rescued orphan bear cubs, housed in a temporary enclosure just behind the maze, Fisher returned to the parking lot to fetch a drone that he would use to shoot aerial footage of the maze, in order that I might describe his masterpiece as it looked from above. Within his mazes, Fisher is used to pulling the strings to manipulate a captive audience, and it frequently seemed as though he had trouble switching off his inner puppet master in his dealings with the rest of the world.

As I watched tiny humans filmed by the drone make exactly the same mistakes that I had, I recalled that a German word for maze, der Irrgarten, translates as “error garden,” and that, during the first golden age of hedge mazes, they were often positioned beneath terraces or high windows, so that spectators could savor the confusion of others. Meanwhile, Fisher, who favors a Socratic style of conversation, directed my attention to a series of locked gates near the entrance. “What might they be for, I wonder?” he said. When I declined to guess, he provided the answer: “They’re for the groundskeepers, so they can get the clippings out without walking for miles.” With similar pride, he pointed out the roof over the maze’s central tower. At half the size of the square platform it covered, it left four triangular corners exposed to the elements—and used fifty per cent less lumber. “This is one of my hallmarks,” he said, perhaps even more delighted by the maze’s practical and cost-saving measures than by its ingeniously disorienting layout.

Fisher is in many respects interested in his projects only while they are still unrealized designs—Escot’s owners were left to plant all its beech trees. Nonetheless, solving the challenges faced by maze managers, like hedge maintenance, customer throughput, and budget balancing, is at least as fascinating to Fisher as creating puzzles for public enjoyment. Not that he gets it right every time. As he gleefully ignored his G.P.S. on the way home, squeezing into the inside lane to sail past traffic, he told me that his most recent maze, in Ningbo, despite being the world’s largest, was not tough enough. “I was frightened that it was too big,” he said. “But the Chinese are utterly driven.”

Hedge mazes rely on turns and high hedges to disrupt the kind of landmark-based navigation on which humans rely.

He pulled out a worn road atlas and balanced it on the steering wheel, tracing our new route before pointing out that the crucial element of all networks is the node, not the channel. “There’s no point making planes fly faster and burn up more fuel,” he said, while attempting to overtake a tractor on a single-lane road going uphill. “The crucial thing is, can you shave twenty-eight minutes off from the moment of touchdown to the moment of picking up your car?”