The Wacky Neuroscience of Forgetting How to Ride a Bicycle

The cerebellum explains why riding the "backwards brain bicycle" is impossible.

Posted May 23, 2015

Einstein on Bicycle/Labeled for Reuse
Source: Einstein on Bicycle/Labeled for Reuse

The saying "it's just like riding a bicycle" implies that once you've practiced a skill to the point that it becomes easy and automatic, you'll always be able to perform that task. But a wacky new experiment using a special "backwards brain bicycle" debunks the entire "just like riding a bike" concept. 

While riding the "backwards brain bicycle," if you steer the handle bars a few degrees to the right, the wheel turns a few degrees to the left, and vice versa. Anyone who thinks they "know" how to ride a bicycle immediately fumbles when trying to ride the special "backwards brain bicycle" that's been jerry-rigged to have the front wheel turn in the oppposite direction that the rider steers the handle bars. Interestingly, after months of riding only a backwards bike, it becomes equally impossible to switch back to riding a traditional bicycle. 

The Backwards Brain Bicycle YouTube video by Destin Sandlin from the "Smarter Every Day" channel has gone viral. As Destin humorously demonstrates throughout the clip, inverting the steering direction of the handle bars completely throws off every bicyclist's coordination, balance, and motor skills, which makes it impossible for anyone to pedal farther than two feet without tipping over and falling off the bike. 

Watching the YouTube clip is both entertaining and educational. If you haven't seen Backwards Brain Bicycle yet, here's the YouTube video:
Destin's video proves, not only that learning a motor skill when you're younger is infinitely easier due to more pliable neuroplasticity, but also reaffirms that we can learn and unlearn automatic motor skills at any age. The Smarter Every Day video also captures the complex physics that go into riding a bicycle and points out the irony that, although "just like riding a bicycyle" implies simplicity, the action of riding a bike is actually very complex.

Just to move a few feet on the backwards brain bicycle requires seamless coordination, dexterity, and an intuitive ability to subconsciously calculate algorithms that take into account the forces of gravity, velocity, and momentum. How is the brain able to process this information effortlessly in a way that makes riding a bicycle seem so easy that the term "it's like riding a bike" has become a cliché?

The Cerebellum Makes Riding a Traditional Bicycle Easy and Automatic

The cerebellum (Latin for "little brain) is responsible for coordination, motor control, balance, and much, much more. Your cerebellum is at the heart of any skill that becomes automatic with practice such as tying your shoe laces, driving a car, serving a tennis ball, typing on a keyboard... and riding a bike. 

My friend Edward Dulac is a triathlete and parent who is fascinated with neuroscience as it relates to both sports and child development. Yesterday, Ed forwarded me the Backwards Brain Bicycle video because it raises interesting questions about the role of the cerebellum in both sport and life in a relatable way. The conclusions of the video also align with the philosophy of my book, The Athlete's Way.

Wikimedia/Life Sciences Database
Cerebellum in red. 
Source: Wikimedia/Life Sciences Database

The cerebellum is only 10 percent of brain volume but holds over 50 percent of your brain's total neurons. Based on this disproportion of neurons, my father would often say, "We don't know exactly what the cerebellum is doing, but whatever it's doing, it's doing a lot of it." 

My father, Richard Bergland, MD, was a neurosurgeon, neuroscientist, nationally ranked tennis player, and the author of The Fabric of Mind. My dad was obsessed with the mysterious powers of the cerebellum both on and off the court.

Like many neuroscientists of his generation, my dad understood that the Purkinje neurons in the cerebellum are the seat of muscle memory. When I was practicing tennis with my dad as I was growing up, he would say to me, "Chris, think about hammering and forging the muscle memory into your cerebellum with every stroke." My fascination with the cerebellum and muscle memory got pounded into my brain at a young age.  

The relationship between the cerebellum the cerebrum is the prime driving force of The Athlete's Way. Although Destin doesn't use the same vernacular that I use to describe what's happening when someone tries to use explicit "knowledge" to ride a bicycle, he points out that "knowlededge" does not equal "understanding" when trying to ride the backwards bicycle.

My neuroscientific interpretation of the backwards bicycle is based on decades of research about the interplay between the cerebellum and cerebrum in sports and in life. I would expand on what he's illustrating to hypothesize that the cerebrum is the house of cerebral "explicit" and declarative knowledge that you can articulate, while the cerebellum is home to cerebellar "implicit" learning that you "know without knowing."  

Tennis legend Arthur Ashe described how "overthinking" can cause an athlete to choke, fumble, and drop the ball. His famous phrase, "Paralysis by analysis," inadvertently refers to the interplay between the cerebrum and cerebellum. You can observe the struggle between the "intellectual" cerebrum and the "intuitive" cerebellum in everybody who tries to ride the backwards bicycle. 

What I love so much about the backwards bike video is that it captures the difference between the "thinking brain," which is your cerebrum and the "non-thinking" brain, which is your cerebellum.

The Backwards Brain Bicycle video also illustrates how daily routines and things we do everyday by-rote can lead to rut-like thinking. The video is refreshing because it shows that when we shake things up a bit these hardwired neural networks can instantaneously disengage—but can also be rewired over time with regular practice through neuroplasticity.  

Below is a rudimentary sketch I drew that illustrates how the left hemisphere of the cerebellum and the right hemisphere of the cerebrum controls the left side of your body, and vice versa. As the yellow and green arrowed pathways illustrate, it's no wonder that when the wires between the four brains hemispheres get crisscrossed on the "backwards brain bicycle," the rider becomes completely discombobulated. 

Photo and illustration by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo and illustration by Christopher Bergland

Conclusion: The Cerebellum Is an Underestimated Dynamo

Neuroscience has proven the cerebellum is central to athletic performance or any type of procedural or implicit learning that becomes automatic with practice. However, conventional neuroscientists haven't given the cerebellum much credit for higher executive functionscognition, language acquisition, psychiatric disorders, or emotional regulation. Luckily, these outdated notions of the cerebellum are rapidly evolving. 

Recently, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, "The Cerebellum Deeply Influences Our Thoughts and Emotions,” based on cutting edge research Jeremy D. Schmahmann, M.D. is conducting at Harvard Medical School. Schmahmann has a revolutionary theory he calls “Dysmetria of Thought” which is a hypothesis that the cerebellum fine-tunes and coordinates our learning and thinking just like it fine-tunes and coordinates muscle movements.

Below is a short two-minute YouTube cartoon that captures how the cerebellum and cerebrum work together to make everyday tasks, like riding a bicycle, automatic.As the father of a 7-year-old, I loved to see Destin drive home the point that the neuroplasticity needed to learn new skills and languages is more malleable when we are young. Watching the Backwards Brain Bicycle clip offers valuable insights about neuroscience, sports, and everyday life that should inspire parents and educators to engage the cerebellum from a young age. 

Watching people try to ride a backwards bicycle illustrates why defects or injury to the cerebellum can be so devasting. Without a fully functioning cerebellum everyday tasks that most of us take for granted can become nearly impossible. But as Destin deftly showcases by mastering the backwards brain bike after eight months of practice, the cerebellum is highly plastic and you can always "teach an old dog new tricks." 

If you'd like to read more about the cerebellum, check out my previous Psychology Today blog posts. 

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete's Way blog posts.

© Christopher Bergland 2015. All rights reserved.

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