Just like Riding a Bike

I will pause for you to check out this video of a grown man failing to ride a bike.

Back yet? Great.

He says, “I had the knowledge of how to ride the bike, but I did not have the understanding.” At first the solution seems simple; in order to turn the bike turn the handle in the opposite direction, yet we still see him fall. He explains the “algorithm” for riding a bike is much more complex than compensating for an opposite turn of the handle. In fact, the process for riding a bike is much more body-intuitive than we understand, and it is the entire nervous system that must cooperate with problem solving cognition to accommodate the change of one gear.

In his first attempt to ride the bike, he tries to turn the bike as normal. The weight of his body leans forward and into the turn while his arms turn the handle into the turn, causing the wheel to turn the opposite direction. His weight is then unsupported by the front of the bike and he falls. In his next few attempts he learns to turn the handle the away from the turn causing the wheels to turn the correct direction, but his body still can’t figure out how to distribute its weight over the bike so that its relationship to both the handle bar and to the front wheel is optimized for balance. As his lecture participants discover, it isn’t just turning that is challenging with the new bike. Riding in a straight line is made up of hundreds of mini-turns and adjustments of the body that also depend on this relationship.

The body and the bike are not one system together. The body is a system within itself and so is the bike, but the relationship between body and bike is not single fold. As he says in the video, there are multiple forces that contribute to riding a bike, and the body has a relationship to every single one simultaneously. Changing one part of bike’s system breaks all known relationships between body and bike, and a new simultaneity of forces must be learned… and not just in the brain. Its a job for the entire nervous system.

Thorough his experiment, not only does he demonstrate plasticity of the brain to learn a new skill, but he also demonstrates plasticity of the body. Its clear just how dependent our experience of living is on our own weight, sensations, and perceptions. We build relationships with tools and other things in this world not because we understand them, but because the body understands itself in relationship to them. So, in the end, solving this problem of riding the changed bike isn’t really about understanding the bike at all, its about understanding yourself on the bike.