The oddity of the stationary escalator

London Underground – Photo by Billy Haworth

When going about our daily routines in the city certain things become repetitive and mundane, and often tweaking this regularity can cause a moment of confusion in our minds. An action that is normally so automatic can become highly noticeable in an abnormal circumstance, such as stepping onto a stationary escalator. Every time this happens it baffles me. I approach the escalator, I see that it’s not in operation, and I think I have adjusted my gait accordingly to descend quite naturally what are now essentially stairs in front of me. But what actually happens feels very unnatural indeed! An awkward sort of near-trip occurs and I struggle to readjust and carry on down the motionless escalator. Something inside my body or my mind refuses to allow any amount of pre-observation and preparation to prevent this awkward moment. Even with knowledge of the escalator my body still automatically prepares for the motion of the escalator beyond my control. Why is this? Has my brain become so well-trained to it’s usual response to the visual of the escalator that it can’t operate otherwise? Is it more a muscular response, whereby some link between the eyes and the muscles is stronger than my conscious mind? How can a simple everyday object possess such psychological power over my body?

A 2009 paper addressed this exact question of action-perception linkage by asking: Does the odd sensation emerge because of the unfamiliar motor behaviour itself toward the irregular step-height of a stopped escalator or as a consequence of an automatic habitual motor program cued by the escalator itself (Takao Fukui, Toshitaka Kimura, Koji Kadota, Shinsuke Shimojo, & Hiroaki Gomi). They compared motor behaviour properties toward a stopped escalator with those toward moving escalators, and toward a wooden stairs that mimicked the stopped escalator.

“The results suggest a dissociation between conscious awareness and subconscious motor control: the former makes us perfectly aware of the current environmental situation, but the latter automatically emerges as a result of highly habituated visual input no matter how unsuitable the motor control is. This dissociation appears to yield an attribution conflict, resulting in the odd sensation.” – Fukei et al., 2009.

So it seems in this instance at least I am not as awkward as I may have thought, and there is an explanation for this strange occurrence. The way we as people become accustomed to ‘normals’ in surroundings is interesting, particularly when something ‘abnormal’ occurs. And I’m sure there are probably other examples of similar odd sensations experienced by our interactions with the places around us, such as the feeling of motion experienced whilst sitting in a stationary train and seeing another train passing by. So if you find yourself one day awkwardly approaching a motionless escalator, you can take some comfort knowing there’s an explanation for your odd behaviour.