Like Riding a Bike…

by Denise Savidge, Academic Dean, Cherokee Creek Boys Boarding School

Denise Savidge - Academic Dean - Cherokee Creek Boys Boarding School

Denise Savidge

There is an old saying: “It’s like riding a bike.” Meaning that once you’ve learned the skill of balancing and pedaling, it is ingrained in your mind and you can never forget how to do it. Or can you?

A video that has now reached more than 8 million views tells the story of The Backwards Brain Bicycle – a brain challenge created with a regular bicycle and the addition of two gears. The two gears serve to reverse the steering mechanism so that turning the handlebars to the right makes the front wheel turn left and vice versa. The narrator is Destin Sandlin, an American engineer and the host of Smarter Every Day, which is an educational video series on YouTube. His frustration in learning to ride the new bike is evident.

Like Riding a Bike video

It would seem that making the switch in your brain would be simple – just remember to turn the opposite of the direction you want to go. It can’t be that difficult once you’ve mastered the regular steering concept. As the narrator points out, having the knowledge of what to do and doing it are two different things.

The attempts caught on video are hilarious and entertaining, but tell us a lot about knowledge, understanding, and neuroplasticity.  Adult learners seem to have the most difficulty “unlearning” something they know. It took Destin 8 months to master the bicycle enough to navigate with few wobbles.

His young son, who has been riding a bike only three years, mastered the necessary technique in two weeks. Call it habit or ingrained learning, once you do something a certain way for a period of time, it is harder to change the longer  that period of practice is. A young brain’s neuroplasticity – ability to change the pathways of information regarding skills, behaviors, and emotions – makes learning and unlearning easier for children.

As you watch the video, think to yourself “How long have you been riding your bicycle? How long would it take you to unlearn it? Would you give up mastering it? And what if you substituted a behavior or bad habit for the word ‘bicycle’?” As adults, we may not be patient enough with ourselves to unlearn and relearn the tasks we need to take on in life.

Which brings to mind the other old saying: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Or in this case, you can … but it may take an awful lot longer.

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