Trippin’ over science

Is there anything worse than the sucker punch of embarrassment from tripping in public?

It’s regrettably a feeling I know all too well. I’m a clumsy sort of guy and despite 29 years of being a human (yes, I know it’s hard to believe) I often have a good old malfunction and there’s usually someone around to notice it.

I sometimes struggle with topics for my blogs. However, after a recent visit to the Cycling Show at the NEC in Birmingham (other conference centres and shows are available), I knew I had a topic to research. On a couple of occasions, I found myself tripping over the tiniest of steps when looking at the different exhibitions.  One particularly offensive step caught a few people out whilst I was there, and it got me thinking ‘why’ and ‘how’?.

Humans are pretty mad; we generally go about our day flawlessly pulling off various sequences of precise movements and measurements without a second thought. Well, some of us do.

Let’s take the act of going up the stairs as an example. For most people, it’s a breeze and not something that you have to pre-plan. However, in just nipping upstairs we use various different bits of the brain to manage a successful expedition.

Along with using the Visual System, we also feel/assess the surface of the stairs with the Somatosensory System, maintain balance with the Vestibular System and then tap into the Memory System to remember various environmental factors such as stair height.

I know what you’re thinking – seems pretty involved. That’s the marvel of the human brain for you. We pull it all off without even putting much thought into it. Although the Visual System is probably the most important, we don’t need it all the time as even ‘Intermittent Visual Input’ is enough as the Memory kicks in and fills the gaps.

In the case of the flat ground: If there is a rise/object in front of the road, people will attentively look at it approximately one or two steps before, then the vision system can move on. When our body reaches or bypasses the rise/object, our eyes don’t need to stare at it because our brain has already recorded the position of it and judged what movements were needed to cross it.”

Naturally then, I should have used my visual system effectively and not stumbled up so many small steps. However, when we encounter unfamiliar layouts, we generally focus on the first 3/4 obstacles and then the visual system is confident it’s made accurate height/width assessments. Now you’re off and away with only occasional glances, complacently going on your way with your bank of short-term route memory. When going up the stairs in particular, the final stage of the stairs is commonly most neglected by the visual system and most reliant on memory.

Still doesn’t explain why I tripped sporadically along with a lot of other people. Well actually, it wasn’t my fault, it was the incorrect height of the step. Or, at least there’s a science argument out there that I’m using. There’s an example (or at least there was) in the 36th street station in New York (it’s a long trip to take just to prove me wrong). Mid way up there’s one step that is higher than the other by 0.5 inches. The Visual System has mapped the route and thinks it all plain sailing until you clip that slightly higher step. In a study on that staircase, most people actually tripped on it as they’d assumed it was no different.

In my case, I’m arguing that some of the steps were too high or too camouflaged into the carpet and my Visual System hasn’t seen any reason to fire up the rest of the stair climbing process.

Bet you weren’t expecting a voyage into the human brain and science when you started reading this. Hope that you enjoyed the trip.

– Mat
Scientific Recruitment Consultant