Throughout my life, I have heard the expression “It’s just like riding a bicycle” a countless number of times. I never actually thought about what this statement truly meant until I was faced with the challenge of writing this blog. When broken down, the process of riding a bike is very complex. The amount of time one must invest to learn how to ride a bike makes it hard to imagine that the skill could be easily forgotten.
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After doing some research, I came across an article that discussed the neurological processes that lead to the formation of memories having to do with motor skills. In an article, written by Roger Highfield, he references a study conducted by two scientists at Sheffield and Saint Andrews Universities. In these studies, the two scientists observed that the memories recalled when riding a bicycle are sensory-motor memories, also known as muscle memories. Skills such as riding a bike can be relearned easily because these sensory-motor memories are spread across a large number of brain cells and locked into a pattern that can be easily recalled.
A video entitled The Backwards Brain Bicycle, by Destin from the YouTube channel,“SmarterEveryday,” also caught my attention while conducting research on this topic. In this video, Destin taught himself how to ride a bike with backwards steering. On a backwards bicycle, if the rider pushes on the right handlebar, the bicycle will turn right and if they push on the left handlebar, the bicycle will turn left. Initially, Destin was unable to ride the backwards bike, but after eight months of daily practice, he mastered riding it. After learning how to ride the backwards bike, Destin found that he could no longer remember how to ride a regular bike. When Destin attempted to ride a regular bike, he could not keep his balance and would fall off almost immediately. It was not until Destin practiced riding the bike for what seemed like 30 minutes that sensory-motor memories of riding a regular bike came back to him and allowed him to ride the regular bike without an issue.
Picture from here
After viewing Destin’s video and reading Highfield’s article, I now understand that it is indeed possible to forget how to ride a bike. On the other hand, this activity can be relearned quickly because of the way sensory-motor memories are stored in the brain.
Learning about sensory-motor memories has given me a newfound appreciation for subconscious activities human in which human beings participate every day. Just take a second to think about how much of an annoyance brushing your teeth would be if you had to think about every stroke you were making with your toothbrush until you finished cleaning your teeth. Think about how long it would take to type an essay or send a text if you had to think about every keystroke you were making. If you were using a keyboard with a new layout, the way Destin was using a new bike, it would take you some time to master the new layout; however, after you learned the layout of the keys, you would no longer have to think about what key you were pressing. And yet due to the miraculous way our brains work, particularly when it comes to the long term encoding of muscle memories, it would not take too long to return to the mindless and lightning fast manner in which I and most of my contemporaries are able to type.