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

1,000,000 Minutes of Newsreel Footage by AP & British Movietone Released on YouTube

Both Faulkn­er and the physi­cists may be right: the pas­sage of time is an illu­sion. And yet, for as long as we’ve been keep­ing score, it’s seemed that his­to­ry real­ly exists, in increas­ing­ly dis­tant forms the fur­ther back we look. As Jonathan Crow wrote in a recent post on news ser­vice British Pathé’s release of 85,000 pieces of archival film on YouTube, see­ing doc­u­men­tary evi­dence of just the last cen­tu­ry “real­ly makes the past feel like a for­eign country—the weird hair­styles, the way a city street looked, the breath­tak­ing­ly casu­al sex­ism and racism.” (Of course there’s more than enough rea­son to think future gen­er­a­tions will say the same of us.) British Pathé’s archive seems exhaustive—until you see the lat­est dig­i­tized col­lec­tion on YouTube from AP (Asso­ci­at­ed Press) and British Movi­etone, which spans from 1895 to the present and brings us thou­sands more past tragedies, tri­umphs, and hair­styles

This release of “more than 1 mil­lion min­utes” of news, writes Vari­ety, includes archival footage of “major world events such as the 1906 San Fran­cis­co earth­quake, exclu­sive footage of the bomb­ing of Pearl Har­bor in 1941, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 2001 ter­ror­ist attacks on the U.S.” And so much more, such as the news­reel above, which depicts Berlin in 1945, even­tu­al­ly get­ting around to doc­u­ment­ing the Pots­dam Con­fer­ence (at 3:55), where Churchill, Stal­in, and Tru­man cre­at­ed the 17th par­al­lel in Viet­nam, dic­tat­ed the terms of the Ger­man occu­pa­tion, and planned the com­ing Japan­ese sur­ren­der. No one at the time could have accu­rate­ly fore­seen the his­tor­i­cal rever­ber­a­tions of these actions.

Anoth­er strange, even uncan­ny piece of film shows us the Eng­lish foot­ball team giv­ing the Nazi salute in 1938 at the com­mence­ment of a game against Ger­many. “That’s shock­ing now,” says Alwyn Lind­say, the direc­tor of AP’s inter­na­tion­al archive, “but it wasn’t at the time.” Films like these have become of much more inter­est since The Sun pub­lished pho­tographs of the roy­al family—including a young Queen Eliz­a­beth II and her uncle Prince (lat­er King, then Duke) Edward VIII—giving Nazi salutes in 1933. Though it was not par­tic­u­lar­ly con­tro­ver­sial, and the chil­dren of course had lit­tle idea what it sig­ni­fied, it did turn out that Edward (seen here) was a would-be Nazi col­lab­o­ra­tor and remained an unapolo­getic sym­pa­thiz­er.

This huge video trove does­n’t just doc­u­ment the grim his­to­ry of the Sec­ond World War, of course. As you can see in the AP’s intro­duc­to­ry mon­tage at the top of the post, there is “a world of his­to­ry at your fingertips”—from tri­umphant video like Nel­son Man­de­la’s release from prison, above, to the below film of “Crazy 60s Hats in Glo­ri­ous Colour.” And more or less every oth­er major world event, dis­as­ter, dis­cov­ery, or wide­spread trend you might name from the last 120 or so years.

The archive splits into two YouTube chan­nels: AP offers both his­tor­i­cal and up-to-the-minute polit­i­cal, sports, celebri­ty, sci­ence, and “weird and wacky” videos (with “new con­tent every day”). The British Movi­etone chan­nel is sole­ly his­tor­i­cal, with much of its con­tent com­ing from the 1960s (like those hats, and this video of the Bea­t­les receiv­ing their MBE’s, and oth­er “Beat­le­ma­nia scenes.”)

Movi­etone’s one nod to the present takes the form of “The Archivist Presents,” in which a his­to­ri­an offers quirky con­text on some bit of archival footage, like that above of the Kinks get­ting their hair curled. The com­plete­ly uniron­ic lounge music and casu­al­ly sex­ist nar­ra­tion will make you both smile and wince, as do Ray Davies and com­pa­ny when they see their new hair. Most of the films in this mil­lion min­utes of news footage (and count­ing) tend to elic­it either or both of these two emo­tion­al reactions—joy (or amuse­ment) or mild to intense hor­ror, and watch­ing them makes the past they show us feel para­dox­i­cal­ly more strange and more imme­di­ate at once.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free: British Pathé Puts Over 85,000 His­tor­i­cal Films on YouTube

New Archive Makes Avail­able 800,000 Pages Doc­u­ment­ing the His­to­ry of Film, Tele­vi­sion & Radio

700 Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, etc. 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

12 Interminable Days of Xmas: Hear the Longest, Trippiest Holiday Carol

“The Twelve Days of Christ­mas” is, of course, already long and repet­i­tive, such that when in recent years I’ve sung even the first few notes of it at “Ave Maria” speed, I’ve been greet­ed with sat­is­fy­ing moans of agony. This year I decid­ed that the thing must be put to tape, with each verse slow­er than the last. The whole thing now runs to around 75 min­utes.

To  make this pleas­ing­ly bear­able, even if an exer­cise in Zen-like patience, I crowd-sourced the back­ing arrange­ments for the vers­es among musi­cian-fans of The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life pod­cast, plus a few spe­cial guests, includ­ing Camper van Beethoven’s Jonathan Segel (who arranged and per­formed verse 11 and plays solos on gui­tar, lap steel, and vio­lin in the verse 12 group jam) and New York come­di­an Adam Sank (who adds a naughty mono­logue to verse 12).

Here’s a quick guide to help you keep your bear­ings dur­ing this strange trip:

-Vers­es 1 and 2 are my effort, to estab­lish the con­cept for the album: ignore the melody to set any beat at any tem­po you want and throw down a bunch of tracks with­out sec­ond-guess­ing your­self or redo­ing any­thing.

-Verse 3 is Swedish prog-key­boardis­t/­gui­tarist Daniel Gustafs­son, sport­ing a baroque ensem­ble.

-Verse 4 is Jason Dur­so and Shan­non Far­rell pro­vid­ing some staid beau­ty while a nar­ra­tor spouts some epi­grams about our expe­ri­ence of time.

-Verse 5 is a dis­co mon­stros­i­ty by a being who wants to be known only as Wil­son.

-Vers­es 6 and 7 are elec­tron­ic, tex­tured pieces by Maxx Bartko and Bel­gian musi­cian Timo Car­li­er respec­tive­ly. Come­di­an Alex Fos­sel­la (@afossella) pro­vides some brief nar­ra­tion in the vein of True Detec­tive.

-Verse 8 is a col­lage of atmos­pher­ic sounds and acoustic instru­ments by Kenn Busch and Jen­ny Green, while Verse 9 turns into a tune­ful acoustic folk song fea­tur­ing UK singer Al Bak­er.

-On return­ing in verse 10, Daniel Gustafs­son estab­lish­es a death-met­al pur­ga­to­ry, which morphs in Jonathan Segel’s verse 11 into an end­less night­mare land­scape.

-Verse 12 is over 25 min­utes alone, with a jazz fusion vibe a la Miles Davis’s Bitch­es Brew and con­tri­bu­tions from Kylae Jor­dan (sax), Rei Tangko (piano), Gustafs­son, Segel, Wil­son, Car­li­er, Greg Thorn­burg, and Sank, over my bass and drums.

An ear­ly com­menter on the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life site where the “song” was post­ed (as an exem­plar in sup­port of a dis­cus­sion on Edmund Burke’s ideas about aese­thet­ic judg­ments of the sub­lime), said that it’s “kind of what I would expect a Pink Floyd Christ­mas album to sound like.”

Can you live through the 12 days? What will your mind look like on the oth­er side?

A free, audio-only mp3 ver­sion of the song can be found here.

Mark Lin­sen­may­er is a musi­cian who releas­es his work free to the pub­lic. He also hosts the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life phi­los­o­phy pod­cast and blog, which you can access via iTunes or the PEL web site.

Norwegian Musician Creates Ice Instruments with a Chain Saw and Sub-Zero Weather

Most pro­fes­sion­al musi­cians have a very spe­cial rela­tion­ship with their instru­ments. Male gui­tarists treat their favorite gui­tars like girlfriends—maybe bet­ter in some cas­es. Trav­el­ing cel­lists buy air­line tick­ets for instru­ments. It’s just too risky to put your liveli­hood in car­go.

Not so for Ter­je Insungset, a Nor­we­gian musi­cian who, among oth­er things, carves instru­ments out of ice. His back­ground is in jazz and tra­di­tion­al Scan­di­na­vian music, but he’s built a rep­u­ta­tion as an artist who makes music on uncon­ven­tion­al mate­ri­als. Con­sid­er­ing where he is from, it’s not sur­pris­ing that he has turned his atten­tion to ice and its musi­cal poten­tial.

Turns out the sound of an ice xylo­phone is lovely—soft, deep, tin­kly. The ice horn sounds like a lone­ly beast call­ing out across the tun­dra. Insungset col­lab­o­rates with vocal­ist Mari Kvien Brun­voll. Togeth­er they per­form around the world, some­times indoors and some­times in the snow, with elab­o­rate micro­phone cords draped around and beau­ti­ful light­ing.

There’s even an ice gui­tar.

Insungset has also built instru­ments out of arc­tic birch, slate, cow bells and gran­ite. His inter­est in ice as a mate­r­i­al devel­oped when he was com­mis­sioned to play music in a frozen water­fall at the 1994 Win­ter Olympics in Lille­ham­mer, Nor­way.

Unlike most musi­cians, he has to build his instru­ments in situ, as he did for recent con­certs in Cana­da where the tem­per­a­ture was 36 below zero with a light wind. Per­fect weath­er for ice music.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Har­ry Partch’s Kooky Orches­tra of DIY Musi­cal Instru­ments

“Glitch” Artists Com­pose with Soft­ware Crash­es and Cor­rupt­ed Files

Kate Rix writes about dig­i­tal media and edu­ca­tion. Vis­it her web­site, .

Stephen Colbert Brings Laughs and Book Tour to Google

Stephen Col­bert is one of the most refresh­ing come­di­ans work­ing today. He main­tains his character’s obnox­ious­ness dur­ing his own show, riff­ing and impro­vis­ing dur­ing inter­views with every­one from Bill O’Reilly to Eli­jah Wood, build­ing his char­ac­ter to dead­pan heights even with Jane Fon­da’s tongue in his ear.

But in the hot seat him­self, as an inter­vie­wee on Let­ter­man, Oprah or even with Play­boy mag­a­zine, Col­bert is authen­tic, can­did, fun­ny and a fast-on-his-feet smar­tie. In ear­ly Decem­ber Col­bert vis­it­ed Google’s New York offices and taped an inter­view for At Google Talks. Col­bert fans will want to check out the unedit­ed ver­sion recent­ly post­ed by Google. As a guest, Col­bert is fun­nier than Jon Stew­art and we get an hon­est look at the bright guy behind the buf­foon. The uncut inter­view has its high­lights, includ­ing the point when Colbert’s reac­tion to Eric Schmidt’s sug­ges­tion that The Col­bert Report launch its own YouTube show. His answers to ques­tions from the audi­ence are engag­ing, fun­ny and reveal­ing. It’s won­der­ful to hear the per­son­al sto­ry about the moment he real­ized he want­ed to make peo­ple laugh.

Col­bert was also con­duct­ing busi­ness. The inter­view was part of his book tour to pro­mote Amer­i­ca Again: Re-Becom­ing the Great­ness We Nev­er Weren’t. Below, you can see Col­bert give his comedic pitch for the book. And, if you want to down­load a free audio copy, you can always do so by start­ing a Free 30-Day Tri­al with We have details here.

Kate Rix writes about dig­i­tal media and edu­ca­tion. Read more of her work at and at 

The Intelligent Channel Launches (with Colum McCann Interview)

In a new effort to estab­lish anoth­er home for intel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion on the web, the Intel­li­gent Chan­nel went live on YouTube this week. Launched as part of YouTube’s new orig­i­nal chan­nels ini­tia­tive, the Intel­li­gent Chan­nel presents lumi­nar­ies from the edu­ca­tion­al, arts, and cul­tur­al worlds in intense con­ver­sa­tions.

The chan­nel will kick off with three strands of orig­i­nal video pro­gram­ming pro­duced by the channel’s par­ent com­pa­ny Intel­li­gent Tele­vi­sion in New York:

On “The Paul Hold­en­gräber Show,” the renowned founder, direc­tor, and host of “Live from the New York Pub­lic Library” inter­views award-win­ning writ­ers and artists about their work and oth­er pas­sions. Holdengräber’s first guest — the show pre­mieres today — is Colum McCann, author of the Nation­al Book Award-win­ning nov­el Let the Great World Spin. (You can watch the con­ver­sa­tion above.) Holdengräber’s next guest is Eliz­a­beth Gilbert, author of the best­selling Eat, Pray, Love.

In “Richard Belzer’s Con­ver­sa­tion,” the star of “Law & Order SVU” and “Homi­cide” inter­views actors, come­di­ans, direc­tors, musi­cians, and writ­ers. Belzer’s open­ing guest is come­di­an Gilbert Got­tfried, who dis­cuss­es the impli­ca­tions of com­e­dy after Sep­tem­ber 11th and in the face of tragedy more gen­er­al­ly. His next guests will include Dick Cavett and Emmy-award win­ning writer-pro­duc­er Tom Fontana.

In “Enlight­en­ment Min­utes,” the famous and the even more famous speak to the audi­ence about their moments of enlight­en­ment, per­son­al tran­scen­dence, and growth.

The Intel­li­gent Chan­nel also fea­tures the new “Ed Archive” – video, film, and oral his­to­ries from uni­ver­si­ties, muse­ums, libraries, and archives that have yet to hit the web.  “Enlight­en­ment Min­utes” and the “Ed Archive” will pre­miere in Feb­ru­ary 2012.

The Learn­ing Chan­nel has dis­ap­peared, the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel gives us less to dis­cov­er than it did, and the His­to­ry Chan­nel has hard­ly any his­to­ry any more!  The Intel­li­gent Channel’s guests come on because they love enlight­en­ment.

The Intel­li­gent Chan­nel — here’s to the con­ver­sa­tion!

Peter B. Kauf­man is founder of the Intel­li­gent Chan­nel and Intel­li­gent Tele­vi­sion ( in New York.

Google Presents YouTube for Schools, Makes Video World Safe for Teachers

On YouTube, the path to edu­ca­tion is as nar­row and as dif­fi­cult to walk as a razor’s edge. Left to their own devices, kids have a ten­den­cy to veer away from the math tuto­ri­als and head straight for the water-ski­ing squir­rels. What’s an edu­ca­tor to do?

Google believes it has the answer with “YouTube for Schools,” a new ser­vice that gives teach­ers and admin­is­tra­tors the abil­i­ty to fil­ter out every­thing but their own selec­tions from YouTube EDU, a curat­ed col­lec­tion of edu­ca­tion­al videos from sources rang­ing from Sesame Street to Har­vard.

“We’ve been hear­ing from teach­ers that they want to use the vast array of edu­ca­tion­al videos on YouTube in their class­room, but are con­cerned that stu­dents will be dis­tract­ed by the lat­est music video or a video of a cute cat, or a video that might not be appro­pri­ate for stu­dents,” writes YouTube Prod­uct Man­ag­er Bri­an Truong. “While schools that com­plete­ly restrict access to YouTube may solve this dis­trac­tion con­cern, they also lim­it access to hun­dreds of thou­sands of edu­ca­tion­al videos on YouTube that can help bring pho­to­syn­the­sis to life, or show what life was like in ancient Greece.”

To help teach­ers find the best mate­r­i­al with ease, YouTube has orga­nized the edu­ca­tion­al videos by sub­ject and grade lev­el, with more than 300 playlists to choose from at To learn more, or to sign up, go to

Also don’t miss our own curat­ed list of Intel­li­gent YouTube Chan­nels, which high­lights the best video col­lec­tions on the Google-owned ser­vice.

The Mechanical Monsters: Seminal Superman Animated Film from 1941

In 1941, direc­tor Dave Fleis­ch­er and Para­mount Pic­tures ani­ma­tors Steve Muf­fati and George Ger­manet­ti pro­duced Super­man: The Mechan­i­cal Mon­sters — a big-bud­get ani­mat­ed adap­ta­tion of the pop­u­lar Super­man comics of that peri­od, in which a mad sci­en­tist unleash­es robots to rob banks and loot muse­ums, and Super­man, nat­u­ral­ly, saves the day. It was one of sev­en­teen films that raised the bar for the­atri­cal shorts and are even con­sid­ered by some to have giv­en rise to the entire Ani­me genre.

More than a mere treat of vin­tage ani­ma­tion, the film cap­tures the era’s char­ac­ter­is­tic ambiva­lence in rec­on­cil­ing the need for progress with the fear of tech­nol­o­gy in a cul­ture on the brink of incred­i­ble tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion. It was the dawn of the tech­no-para­noia that per­sist­ed through the 1970s, famous­ly cap­tured in the TV series Future Shock nar­rat­ed by Orson Welles, and even through today. Take for exam­ple books like Nicholas Car­r’s The Shal­lows and Sher­ry Turkle’s Alone Togeth­er: Why We Expect More from Tech­nol­o­gy and Less from Each Oth­er.

Super­man: The Mechan­i­cal Mon­sters is avail­able for down­load on The Inter­net Archive, and Toon­a­mi Dig­i­tal Arse­nal has the com­plete series of all sev­en­teen films. Find more vin­tage ani­ma­tion in Open Cul­ture’s col­lec­tion of Free Movies Online.

Maria Popo­va is the founder and edi­tor in chief of Brain Pick­ings, a curat­ed inven­to­ry of cross-dis­ci­pli­nary inter­est­ing­ness. She writes for Wired UK, The Atlantic and Desig­nOb­serv­er, and spends a great deal of time on Twit­ter.

« Go BackMore in this category... »
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.