Because I forget stuff. Part of

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Originally posted March 27 2008 at 22:03 under General. 0 Comments. Trackbacks Disabled. Last modified: 28 March 2008 at 20:28

Imaginary Staircases

Mind Hacked
Stationary, I think

Anyone familiar with London Bridge Rail Station will know the escalators in the centre of the concourse, which lead to/from the Vaults and Joiner Street, the way towards the underground station. Currently these aren’t working. They haven’t been working since before Easter. A sign declares an electrical fault which is being “worked on”. Presumably all the escalator engineers are too busy doing whatever it is they’re doing to those moving staircases within the underground to actually come up a bit and do something to those that people are actually trying to use. I could gripe about this (all right, I just did) but I’m going to talk about something else instead.

Even though these escalators aren’t working a few thousand (I’d imagine) people still want to move along that route each day, myself included. Which means walking up and down the stationary escalators. That gives rise to the familiar “broken escalator phenomenon”, a momentary lurching as one steps on or off the escalator unconsciously expecting motion and finding none. I mention this because I finally decided to check at lunch time that my memory was correct and this is a known phenomenon and not just me. A quick Google found a sequence of papers by Reynolds & Bronstein, et al., beginning with one in Experimental Brain Research (2003, vol. 151, pg 308) which looked at a closely related experience involving stepping onto a moving walkway (reading through it seems that there are a couple of reasons it might not be quite the same phenomenon, but it’s pretty close and offers insight)[a].

None of this would really be too interesting but for the fact that one thing that caught my eye was that the momentary jarring seems to be down to an unconscious increase in gate speed on approach to the walkway (and, by extension, escalator). So on the way home tonight, when I approached the still bloody broken escalators, I very deliberately slowed myself down. This did have the effect of reducing the normal broken escalator phenomenon (or, at least, it subjectively felt reduced). More interestingly, it induced the distinct visual hallucination that the escalator was moving downwards towards me (I was heading upwards). It seems that my reduction of my own speed has translated into a perceived reduction in the velocity of the escalator away from me, to the point where that was towards me. This is not any less disorientating than the normal phenomenon.

The question remains what am I going to try tomorrow if the escalators are still broken? Attempting to tackle them backwards seems both dangerous and open to ridicule. However, perhaps twisting at the last moment to board them sideways may change the perception. I’m fairly sure that I tend to step onto escalators with my right foot too, so using the left may have an affect. Experimental science in action!

More: This morning the escalators were still out of action, so I took the opportunity to attempt stepping onto them sideways (twisting as I made the first step). I feel the experiment might have been somewhat contaminated due to the fact that the simple mass of people was reducing the normal approach speed anyway, however, there was still a definite reduction iin the disorientation, although no induced illusions this time (perhaps because I wasn’t looking directly at the escalator and couldn’t see as much of it, travelling down, anyway). On the way home the escalators were 75% operational and I’m too lazy to walk up the one which was still out of action ;-)

[a] See also J. Neurophysiol. 91 92 (2004) and Exp Brain Res. 174 270 (2006)

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This Crazy Fool

Dr Ian Scott
Croydon (and Gateshead), United Kingdom
Bullding Services Engineer (EngDesign), PhD in Physics (University of York), football fanatic (Newcastle United), open source enthusiast (mainly Mozilla)

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