The Backwards Brain Bicycle

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An evening pause: This is show 133 of a series called Smarter Every Day which has some really entertaining and very educational videos. I especially like his video showing how the drill on Curiosity works. The video below however shows some actual experimentation done by the videographer himself, and is almost profound in it what reveals about the human learning process.

Hat tip Chris McLaughlin.


  • Laurie

    You must be born again ;)

  • Nominate for ‘Best Performance in an Evening Pause’.

  • Robert Pratt

    Knowledge is not understanding. Correct and, I can explain things all day but I can’t make someone understand.

  • PeterF

    The problem is obvious!
    His seat height is set too low!

    Ever tried to write backwards using a mirror?

    But seriously, if you were to replace the handlebars with a steering wheel, you could train by steering with the bottom part rather than with the top part. Sort of like learning to steer with a spinner knob (illegal on road vehicles in most states) mounted at the bottom of the wheel on a forklift.

  • DougSpace

    Perhaps the key is to look at the front wheel and then follow it with your handle bars.

  • wayne

    Yes, these are very cool video’s.
    –I believe there is a companion video on the “physics of bikes,” which is very enlightening as well, & further illustrates how complex of a task it actually is, no matter how it’s configured.

    There is a large body of behavioral research on the acquisition of “basic” learning tasks (but it’s often in a discrete form) and varies highly depending on what task you are learning, what age you are, and how much it involves manipulation of mass through space. (which comprises most human “activities.”)
    (as we’ve seen recently with the creepy robots that can chase you through the forest, Programming has gotten a good handle on locomotion & stability.

    This is a fascinating topic & branches off into dozens of different area’s, but as Mr. Z noted– “…profound in it what reveals about the human learning process.”

    Just one area of interest I’d recommend–

    Essentially– that which comprises one’s sensing capability as to the internal position of your body parts & movement in space.

    slight tangent– Cat’s are well known for their inherent “righting reflex,” humans have a similar reflex which primarily involves righting the eye’s to lock onto or reacquire horizontal cue’s as to where you are in relation to the world. Inner ear & eyes react first, followed by body movements to re-orient yourself.
    (But I digress… please continue…)

  • Garry

    This reminds me of what I experienced when I got into skydiving decades ago. I was determined to learn how to make formations with other skydivers in freefall. Everyone advised me that as I approach, the one thing I didn’t want to do was reach out with my hands, as that will make me go backward, away from my intended target.

    I recognized that this was counterintuitive, but like everyone else, I laughed and assured myself that I knew what to do. Also like everyone else, in my first few attempts, I straightened my knees and held my arms back as I approached my target, but at the last minute I reached out with my arms, and suddenly found myself 20 feet back from my intended target.

    Eventually I was able to maneuver more or less smoothly, but it took a lot of concentration. I had maybe 30+ jumps doing relative work with other skydivers, and it was like a toddler learning to walk; I got beyond the crawling stage, but never far beyond the stage of taking a few steps and falling down.

    The way humans learn complex physical skills is fascinating.

  • wayne

    Fascinating stuff!
    total tangent– do you get a feeling of falling, whilst in free-fall? What’s the noise-level you experience?

    The whole “learning-process” is a fascinating subject.

    The backward bike example covers a huge amount of ground, as does Garry’s skydiving example.
    Huge amounts of Gross & Fine motor skills are autonomic & run in the background, and have been finely adapted to our individual experiences, time, space, and our gravity.
    Concurrently, we can also describe & understand “counter-intuitive” stuff, and become quite skilled with practice.

    Robert Pratt– you touch upon another profound piece of analysis. (I would quibble with how much one has to understand to be knowledgeable but that’s another subject entirely.)
    — If I’m getting your point correctly– I totally agree– analytically “knowing” how something works is not sufficient to actually preform the task, that also requires doing the task, repetitively to a point where you don’t necessarily have to consciously attend to the task itself.

  • Garry


    I only felt a falling sensation the first 5 seconds or so; the acceleration after that is fairly small, and there’s so much more stimulus that I didn’t notice any sensation of falling after 5 seconds. And the wind (at least 110 mph at terminal velocity) was VERY noisy. I always laugh when in the movies they show people talking in free fall; there’s no way to hear anyone. Once the canopy was opened, it was amazing how well sound from the ground carried up to me; sometimes I could hear people on the ground conversing, from about 2,000 feet.

    Even when I was doing 4 jumps every Saturday and 4 on Sunday, when I wasn’t actually jumping I couldn’t comprehend what it was like. Even after more than 50 jumps, once I jumped out of the plane it was like experiencing deja vu; it was an environment I knew I had experienced before and I immediately felt fully oriented to the experience, but I knew that I had not really comprehended it since the last jump.

    Every once in a while, at random times, I would really freak out when I thought about what skydiving actually involved.

    By the way, I’ve never liked roller coasters and other rides; I don’t like the sensation of falling or spinning, but I’ve always liked heights, and was really hooked on skydiving at that time in my life. And I’ve never been on a motorcycle; they scare me.

  • ken anthony

    I absolutely loved this video but there’s one point not addressed… counter steering. Most people don’t realize to go left on a bike you turn right. To go right you turn left (except at very low speeds.)

    For the backwards bike correct steering would be what they incorrectly believe for a normal bike.

  • wayne

    ken– good point.
    The Counterintuitive Physics of Turning a Bike
    (a definite acquired fine motor skill)
    -anecdotally– when learning to ride a bike, I distinctly recall being able to remain moving & balance in a straight line, long before I could turn anywhere near gracefully.

    thanks for the info..
    Yow-Za! (gotta hand it to ya!)
    — The only way I’m jumping out of an airplane, is if it’s going to crash and even then you’ll have to push me out-the-hatch. I’ll be screaming, so just pull the cord & push me out. (When I was young & foolish I was infinitely more fearless, but now I like to remain safely and firmly planted on the surface.)

  • Garry

    Wayne, I’m 25 years removed from my last jump. One of those things I’m glad I did when I was young, but would never do again except under the circumstances you mentioned.

  • Joe

    As someone who rides both bicycles and motorcycles, there is a speed at which you go from steering to counter steering, when at low speeds you will intuitivly steer in the direction you want to go, all of a sudden you will find that you will lean and intuitivly push on the handle bars opposite the direction that you want to go, you don’t even think of it, it’s just there, I would not be able to ride this contraption, regarding jumping out of perfectly good aircraft, as a pilot, I will go down with my ship!

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