Have you ever tried to ride a backward bicycle? I’m not talking about a bike the moves backward; I mean one that has its handlebars rigged to move in the opposite direction. I didn’t think so. Neither have I.
You will need to look no farther than Destin, the host of Smarter Every Day, to find someone who has tried this stunt. Destin says in the 133rd episode of his series that this all began at his job. The welders at his workplace, he says, are really smart, and they took an ordinary bicycle and made it into something extraordinary simply by reversing the way in which it would steer.
The welders urged Destin to try to ride the bike, and he tried and failed multiple times in the shop that day. But that wasn’t the end. He took the bike home and practiced about five minutes every day for the next eight months. At the end of that term, he was able to get up to speed and steer without falling over.
He had accomplished his goal. However, he had, in that process of learning how to ride the new bike, completely destroyed his ability to ride a normal bike. It wasn’t until weeks or months later when he found himself in Amsterdam in front of a crowd of strangers and someone lent Destin a bike to see if Destin could ride it. Spoiler: he fell down immediately.
His brain had apparently fused the function of the new method of steering to the rest of the elements of riding. He could sit and balance and pedal normally, but steering was out of the question. It only took about 15 minutes for him to figure out the normal bike again, but there were multiple attempts where his brain was certain that something must be wrong because this old-style bike was, although “normal” like 99 percent of other bikes in the world, quite incorrect.
What this experiment helps prove is more than the veracity of the phrase, “It’s like riding a bike. You never forget.” Destin has proven that you can force your brain to develop new neural pathways. With time, anyone may be able to learn how to ride the new bike. His son learned how to ride a kid’s version of the backward bike with only two weeks of practice. That time may also cause your brain to develop a new normal for complex tasks, so it is worth noting that new tasks may be hard because the brain is stuck in its ways for a good reason.
Riding a bike involves complex balance, forward motion, movement of the arms and legs, and many subtle exchanges between those elements. Many other tasks in life are equally complex, so the brain, once it has learned to conquer such tasks, can become faster and better at those tasks only because it hard-wires some things to the point of being automatic. You may actively look at your surroundings while riding to avoid cars or potholes, but the rest of your navigation is taking place automatically.
In his video, Destin calls this a “bias” toward a certain way of acting. He said he was only able to redesignate the bias in his brain about what riding a bike should be like and what tasks should be automatic. He then had to re-redesignate the bias again when he learned how to ride a normal bike for the second time in his life.
It is unclear whether or not, with enough practice, that Destin could be proficient at both types of bicycles. He did not demonstrate what it was like hopping back on the backward bike after having conquered the normal bike in Amsterdam. The brain can demonstrate amazing elasticity, but there are limits to what it can do. Perhaps learning two types of bikes at once is one of those limits.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Caption: Bikes come in all shapes and sizes.)