The Backwards Brain Bicycle – Smarter Every Day 133

The Backwards Brain Bicycle – Smarter Every Day 133


Hey it’s me Destin. Welcome back to Smarter Every Day. You’ve heard people say, “It’s just like riding a bike” meaning it’s really easy and you can’t forget how to do it, right? But I did something. I did something that damaged my mind. It happened on the streets of Amsterdam and I got really scared honestly. I can’t ride a bike like you can anymore. Before I show you the video of what happened I need to tell you the back story. Like many six year olds with a MacGyver mullet I learned how to ride a bike when I was really young. I had learned a life skill and I was really proud of it. Everything changed though when my friend Barney called me 25 years later. Where I work, the welders are geniuses, and they like to play jokes on the engineers. He had a challenge for me. He had built a special bicycle and he wanted me to try to ride it. He had only changed one thing. When you turn the handlebar to the left, the wheel goes to the right. When you turn it to the right, the wheel goes to the left. I thought this would be easy so I hopped on the bike ready to demonstrate how quickly I could conquer this. – And here he is ladies and gentlemen, Mr Destin Sandlin. First attempt riding the bicycle. – Yeah, yeah. I couldn’t do it. You can see that I’m laughing but I’m actually really frustrated. In this moment I had a really deep revelation. My thinking was in a rut. This bike revealed a very deep truth to me. I had the knowledge of how to operate the bike, but I did not have the understanding. Therefore, knowledge is not understanding. Look I know what you’re probably thinking. Destin’s probably just an uncoordinated engineer and can’t do it. But that’s not the case at all. The algorithm that’s associated with riding a bike, in your brain, is just that complicated. Think about it. Downwards force on the pedals, leaning your whole body, pulling and pushing the handlebars, gyroscopic procession in the wheels, every single force is part of this algorithm. And if you change any one part it affects the entire control system. I do not make definitive statements that often, but I’m telling you right now, you cannot ride this bicycle. You might think you can, but you can’t. I know this because I’m often asked to speak at universities and conferences and I take the bike with me. It’s always the same. People think they’re gonna try some trick or they’re just gonna power through it. It doesn’t work. Your brain cannot handle this. For instance, this guy. I offered him two hundred dollars just to ride this bike ten feet across the stage. Everybody thought he could do it. [crowd exclaims] No no no. You didn’t understand. So.. this way, not that way. [crowd laughs] Alright so, whenever you’re ready. Remember you have to keep your feet on.. [crowd laughs] [laughing crowd] You’ve gotta start rolling at least. And go. Keep your feet on the pedal, go. [laughing crowd] Just keep your feet on the pedals. Alright, one more time. Once you have a rigid way of thinking in your head, sometimes you cannot change that, even if you want to. So here’s what I did. It was a personal challenge. I stayed out here in this driveway and I practiced about 5 minutes every day. My neighbors made fun of me. I had many wrecks. But after 8 months, this happened. One day I couldn’t ride the bike, and the next day I could. It was like I could feel some kind of pathway in my brain that was now unlocked. It was really weird though. It’s like there’s this trail in my brain, but if I wasn’t paying close enough attention to it, my brain would easily lose that neural path and jump back onto the old road it was more familiar with. Any small distractions at all, like a cellphone ringing in my pocket, would instantly throw my brain back to the old control algorithm and I would wreck. But at least I could ride it. My son is the closest person to me genetically and he’s been riding a normal bike for 3 years, that’s over half his life. I wanted to know how long it would take him to learn how to ride a backwards bike so I told him if he learned how to ride a backwards bike he could go with me to Australia and meet a real astronaut. Are you gonna give up? – No. – Go ahead. This is how it starts. Look at this. This is such a big deal. Get up, you got it. Did you see his brain get it? So he, in.. How many weeks we been doing this? Two weeks? In two weeks he did something that took me 8 months to do, which demonstrates that a child has more neural plasticity, am I even saying that right? Than an adult. It’s clear from this experiment that children have a much more plastic brain than adults. That’s why the best time to learn a language is when you’re a young child. Alright, today’s bike log. I can ride smooth, I can ride fast. I’m thinking the experiment is over. OK now I’m in Amsterdam, a city that has more bicycles than people. The question is, can I ride a normal bike now. I mean I have spent all this time unlearning how to ride a bike, If I go back and try to ride a normal one will my brain mess up. So I’ve tweeted a Smarter Every Day.. meetup, if you will. And I’m gonna see if somebody brings a bicycle and I’m gonna try to ride a normal bike. It’s backwards, it’s backwards. This was one of the most frustrating moments of my life. I had ridden a normal bike since I was six, but in this moment I couldn’t do it any more. I had set out to prove that I could free my brain from a cognitive bias, but at this point I’m pretty sure that all I’ve proved is that I can only re-designate that bias. So what you’re not seeing is there’s a group of people here, looking at me. Looking at the strange American, that can’t ride a bike, cause they think I’m dumb. But I’m actually two levels deep into this, because I’ve learned and un-learned. Alright. After 20 minutes of making a fool out of myself, suddenly my brain clicked back into the old algorithm. I can’t explain it, but it happened in a very specific moment. [laughter] I’ve got it, I’ve got it, I’ve got it. I’m back. Oh it clicked. It clicked. I’ve got it, I’ve got it. OK there it is. There was the moment. OK I can ride a bike. I tried to explain this to the people around me, and they just didn’t get it. They thought I was faking the previous 20 minutes and I couldn’t get anybody to believe me. That looked like I faked it, didn’t it. You think I’m faking. You don’t believe me. – It looked so weird… – You think I’m lying don’t you. I’m not lying. I felt like the only person on the planet who had ever un-learned how to ride a bike, and I couldn’t articulate it to anyone because everybody just knew that you can’t forget how to ride a bike. So I learned 3 things from this experiment. I learned that welders are often smarter than engineers, I learned that knowledge does not equal understanding, and I learned that truth is truth. No matter what I think about it. So be very careful how you interpret things because you’re looking at the world with a bias whether you think you are or not. I’m Destin, you’re getting Smarter Every Day, have a good one. OK if you wanna support Smarter Every Day you can download a free audio book at audible.com/smarter I recommend Commander Hadfield’s book which is An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. I read it, it was awesome. If you think about it, I had to learn how to ride a different kind of bicycle and my son did it as well, but Commander Hadfield had to learn how to ride a different space ship. Not only that, but a different type of space station. He was on Mir and the International Space Station. Anyway, if you’re interested in supporting Smarter Every Day, audible.com/smarter, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. I’m Destin, you’re getting Smarter Every Day. Have a good one. [crowd cheers] Everything is wrong… My instinctive reaction is wrong. (Destin) Why don’t you ride it? You just build it? – I can’t ride it, I just build it. [laughs]

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