The other morning, I did a strange thing. I got up as normal and had my breakfast. I made myself a packed lunch, just like always. I went outside to begin my cycle to work, but when I got to my bike, in the back garden of New Earth: instead of unlocking it and riding to work, I locked it up.

Then, I had to unlock it again so that I could ride it.

Why did this happen? It happened because my brain has clearly made the association that my daily routine includes “toggling my bike lock” as part of it’s actions, rather than “unlocking my bike lock”. It’s become ingrained that I have to “change the state” of my bike lock (from locked to unlocked, or vice-versa) before I can go to work… so when I forgot to lock my bike up the previous night, it threw off my morning as I began the day by locking it up, rather than unlocking it.

A Kryptonite New York lock, like the one I use. It weighs about a ton but it's pretty-much bombproof.

Back when I had my concussion last May, I did a similar thing, swapping the contents of two cupboards that we’d already swapped. I couldn’t remember why they were being exchanged, just that they were, so I swapped them over.

It’d be nice to think that I only engage in this kind of “toggling” behaviour when I’m sleepy, perhaps, or when I’ve suffered a head injury. But sadly, that turns out not to be the case:

Over the River Thames near Friar’s Wharf, there’s a footbridge that forms a part of the National Cycle Network. It’s part of my usual ride to work. A few months ago, I spent my workday running training sessions in an office on the other side of the river, and so I didn’t need to cross it to get home. But when I was cycling home, along the towpath, and reached the bridge, I started to cross it! I got half-way over before I realised that I was now heading exactly the wrong way and turned back. Again: my brain clearly has a short-circuit there, in that when I come to that bridge during a journey, I feel that I need to cross it. What’s the deal, brain?

This phenomenon seems to be related to muscle memory and the so-called “driving trance”: the same thing that traps you when you plan to run an errand on your way somewhere and somehow reach the other end of your journey having completely forgotten to run the errand. “I walked right past the post box with the letter in my hand! Why would I do that?”

I wonder how others experience “toggling”. Do you “toggle” things when you’re on autopilot?



  1. Claire Q Claire Q says:

    One thing I keep doing is trying to lock the door at work with my house key. It’s like I know I have to perform the locking operation, but my brain has associated that too strongly with one particular key.

    I definitely toggle the bathroom light – if it’s on, I *always* turn it off as I go in before I can stop myself. Doesn’t seem to happen with other lights. The same phenomenon causes me to neatly put away my weapons just as a bear charges towards me in Skyrim!

    1. Dan Q Dan Q says:

      I do the same thing in so many video games. I’ve caught myself out in many games of Ultima VII (one of the computer games that stole my life), accidentally switching from combat mode to friendly mode when I’ve spotted a distant enemy in a dungeon I’ve been exploring. And – especially when I’m tired – I’ve made the same mistake with bathroom lights as you.

  2. Godzilla Godzilla says:

    Work and college are next door to each other, everytime I get in the car I have to really think about where i’m going otherwise I’ll end up on Sharoe Green Lane!

  3. Crusty Crusty says:

    If I ‘forget’ I’ve locked the chicken up (cos I often do it on autopilot) and go back down the garden later to lock her up, I have occasionally actually ‘let her out’ (even though it’s dark and she’s asleep), then realise what I’ve done and lock her up again! That’s an example of the same thing I suspect. If I’m on auto-pilot going down the garden to ‘sort the chicken’ I unthinkingly toggle between ‘lock the coop if it’s open’ and ‘open the coop if it’s locked’ regardless of what’s actually the appropriate thing to do!

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