there must be a name for this.
March 12, 2021 12:08 PM   Subscribe

occasionally, while going up or down stairs, I will forget how many steps there are. So I'll think I've hit the last stair, and move like I should be able to walk on a flat surface, and I'll stumble pretty badly when my foot doesn't connect with the ground where I expect. Ouch. A) I can't be the only person who does this, right? B) is there a more specific name for this phenomenon other than "spatial brain fart"?
posted by snerson to Science & Nature (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't forget how many steps there are, because I'm never counting. But I do miss that last step sometimes, because of some depth perception failure. My stairs at home are light varnished wood, same as the floor at the end, so it can be hard to distinguish. I've got a piece of blue painters tape on the last step to always remind me it's there. I doubt if there is a stair specific name for it.
posted by beagle at 12:29 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Phantom Step
posted by tiamat at 12:40 PM on March 12 [4 favorites]

This called Leertretung ("empty step") in German.
posted by oxisos at 1:31 PM on March 12

I have been doing this on and off every so often since at least middle school. Sometimes I will reach the top and think theres another step, and step down hard with the force to lift myself up, but end up just stomping very loudly.
posted by FirstMateKate at 2:06 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Native German speaker here. I've never heard the word Leertretung, so I got curious. A little bit of research revealed that this word was made up by Ben Schott, author of Schottenfreude "German Words for the Human Condition". The NYTimes published a selection of the words he invented, including Leertretung.

BTW, "Leertretung" is grammatically not correct, it should be Leertritt. </pedant>
posted by amf at 2:16 PM on March 12 [15 favorites]

I broke one of my toes stepping hard into the empty air in just the same way. I do believe that my stair railing is too short and visually gives the impression that the last step is one sooner than it is.

Don’t know a fancy word for it though.
posted by ChristineSings at 3:01 PM on March 12

No word. There's a video compilation out there somewhere of a subway staircase that's got one step an inch different in height, though, and so many people stumble on it.
posted by Lady Li at 3:33 PM on March 12

Your body is pretty good at remembering how many steps are there. I tend to be unsure about the last step going downstairs at night in the dark. Is there a handrail? Use it. Can you add a light? Stairs are a major source of falls and injuries. The insurance visitor made me install a handrail, and life is so much safer. I have night lights, but when I'm sleepy, I just make sure I'm really cautious.
posted by theora55 at 3:39 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It usually occurs when I'm hauling laundry up or down the stairs, so I have to rely on my muscle memory of the stairs, instead of visual feedback, to coordinate my legs. The feeling of my conscious brain trying to use my body's memory of the stairs and how many there are, and then making the wrong call, is a pretty specific feeling I now know because of this situation, lol.

I do this once out of every 40ish laundry trips, so I'm not particularly worried - just amused/curious.

amf - thank you for the research and the link to the article :D that book seems very cozy, kind of in the neighborhood of the human test, I think I'll find a copy.
posted by snerson at 4:40 PM on March 12

I count steps all the time. I have found in a residential setting there are usually 13 steps to a flight. Usually. In my house, I know the number of all steps in that stairs. If I am carrying something that blocks my view, I count on the way down. It may be overkill, but after i missed a step 2 times, I took action. Any place I have been to more than a couple of times, I count the steps in the stairs. It helps.
posted by AugustWest at 6:03 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

^^This. After too many of those missed steps jarring me, I count steps everywhere, all the time. And also hold the railing if there is one. If I'm going up and lose track of my count so I don't know if I'm at the top already or not, I poke gently directly forward with one foot to see if I hit the back of a stair or not so I know if I have to step up.
posted by current resident at 6:30 PM on March 12

I don't understand counting steps! It's a rhythm (or a couple of rhythms; sometimes I'm running up the stairs) and I don't "count" any more than I count the number of "na"s I say when I say "banana". Drawing from that linguistic pool, maybe you could call it an "elided step".
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 11:12 PM on March 12

Fancy term is proprioceptive deception. Which link cites the subway staircase stumble. An acquaintance of mine used to be a ballet dancer; that all finished for him when he was carrying his partner backwards across an unfamiliar stage and unexpectedly stepped down 8cm and compressed his spine. Many don't need to consciously count steps in their own home . . . and we should move to our final home while we're still [mentally] agile enough to embed the count. If the stairs are lit we prolly back up the unconscious counting with visual cues - don't wear reading glasses going down stairs as it mixes the proprioceptive message.
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:00 AM on March 13 [2 favorites]

This has been an issue for me my whole life. Like snerson, up until a couple years ago it was nothing more than a curiosity and quick jolt of adrenaline, until I completely missed the bottom stair while carrying a couple of light boxes down (and was relying on sense memory instead of sight), and broke my foot because I wasn't able to use my hands to catch myself. Ended up needing surgery to put in a plate and 4 pins to reconstruct my 5th metatarsal. Recovery and physical therapy was way more extensive than I ever thought it would be for such a small bone. So....I guess what I'm getting at is, please be careful. It's not a big deal, until suddenly it really, really is!
posted by sharp pointy objects at 6:26 PM on March 14

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