Discover The Backwards Brain Bicycle: What Riding a Bike Says About the Neuroplasticity of the Brain

Like most of us, engi­neer Des­tin San­dlin, cre­ator of the edu­ca­tion­al sci­ence web­site Smarter Every Day, learned how to ride a bike as a child. Archival footage from 1987 shows a con­fi­dent, mul­let-haired San­dlin pilot­ing a two-wheel­er like a boss.

Flash for­ward to the present day, when a welder friend threw a major wrench in Sandlin’s cycling game by tweak­ing a bike’s handlebar/front wheel cor­re­spon­dence. Turn the han­dle­bars of the “back­wards bike” to the left, and the wheel goes to the right. Steer right, and the front wheel points left.

San­dlin thought he’d con­quer this beast in a mat­ter of min­utes, but in truth it took him eight months of dai­ly prac­tice to con­quer his brain’s cog­ni­tive bias as to the expect­ed oper­a­tion. This led him to the con­clu­sion that knowl­edge is not the same thing as under­stand­ing.

He knew how to ride a nor­mal bike, but had no real grasp of the com­plex algo­rithm that kept him upright, a simul­ta­ne­ous bal­let of bal­ance, down­ward force, gyro­scop­ic pro­ces­sion, and nav­i­ga­tion.

As he assures fans of his Youtube chan­nel, it’s not a case of the stereo­typ­i­cal unco­or­di­nat­ed sci­ence geek—not only can he jug­gle, when he took the back­wards bike on tour, a glob­al ros­ter of audi­ence vol­un­teers’ brains gave them the exact same trou­ble his had.

Inter­est­ing­ly, his 6‑year-old son, who’d been rid­ing a bike for half his young life, got the hang of the back­wards bike in just two weeks. Children’s brain’s pos­sess much more neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty than those of adults, whose senior­i­ty means habits and bias­es are that much more ingrained.

It couldn’t have hurt that San­dlin bribed the kid with a trip to Aus­tralia to meet an astro­naut.

Did the ardu­ous­ness of mas­ter­ing the back­wards bike ruin San­dlin for nor­mal­ly con­fig­ured bicy­cles? Watch the video above all the way to the end for an incred­i­ble spon­ta­neous moment of mind over mat­ter.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Physics of the Bike

The Mys­te­ri­ous Physics Behind How Bikes Ride by Them­selves

Sci­ence Behind the Bike: Four Videos from the Open Uni­ver­si­ty on the Eve of the Tour de France

The Neu­ro­science of Drum­ming: Researchers Dis­cov­er the Secrets of Drum­ming & The Human Brain

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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  • Romke Hoogwaerts says:

    Minor but impor­tant note — that seat is way too low and can’t be help­ing. Your leg should be almost com­plete­ly stretched out at the low­est point of pad­dling and you should just be able to reach the ground with your toes. Just a pro-tip for all you non-Dutch per­sons out there

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