The backwards bicycle and neuroplasticity

The backwards bicycle was designed by some welders that work with Destin, an internet-famous science communicator. He’s funny and engaging and his videos are really great.

Destin’s experience with the backwards bicycle is a fascinating window into a real life learning scenario.

The backwards bicycle is just a regular bike, but the handle bar has been cleverly designed to turn the front tire in the opposite direction.

backwards bicycle handlebar gears
Turn these handles to the right, and the front wheel turns to the left. And vice versa.

It’s simple enough. And pretty much everyone who looks at the bike, thinks to themselves, I can ride that. After all, I ride a regular bike. And this bike has just one small difference! And I totally understand the difference.

But hijinx ensues. No one, and I mean no one, can ride the bike at first. It takes Destin five minutes a day for eight months. He takes it as evidence that “knowing is not understanding” and also that neuroplasticity is a thing, especially for adults.

Watch the video.

0. What we can learn from this

Awesome right? There are three important lessons, for all of us, in the backwards bicycle phenomenon, especially as it relates to our personal and professional journey developing our emotional intelligence skills.

1. Learning is possible

The first lesson is that learning is possible. It is possible to watch this video and feel deflated and overwhelmed. But that is the path to madness. Destin figured it out. And so could we if we wanted to.

In the video, it’s interesting that the welder who made the bike, chose not to learn to ride it. That’s a perfectly reasonable decision to make. There’s an opportunity cost to learning. But also, some people are more open to looking, well, silly, while they learn. Some people are more open to being wrong. These people are more likely to have a growth mindset and are more likely to take on new learning. These people are more likely to be resilient to setbacks.

When we choose to commit ourselves to learning new skills, we come up against the current structure of our brain, aka “brain ruts” or cognitive bias, as well as our brain rigidity. And rigid though it may be, your brain is changeable.

And rigid though it may be, your brain is changeable.  Tweet This!

Accepting the fact that “you can not ride this bike,” is a prerequisite to accepting the fact that you can learn to ride this bike. Same with emotional intelligence skills development. We start with a clear picture of where we’re at, so we can think seriously about what we need to learn.

2. The time it takes to learn something is hard to predict

The second lesson is that learning is sometimes unpredictably difficult. This is an interesting one. I think the reason I like watching this video of Destin’s so much is that, smart as he is, he radically underestimated the challenge. I would have too, no question.

The point, I think, is that accepting and challenging the realities of our neuroplasticity takes patience and diligence. And humility. And optimism!

It is also means that it’s wise to accept the expertise of others. Left to our own devices we can conceive ideas that either radically overestimate or underestimate how difficult it is to develop our skills.

3. Learning requires doing and testing

When Destin finally figured out how to ride the backwards bicycle, he could no longer ride his bike. Now, it occurred to me that with time, he could become proficient at doing both. But initially, his “new neural pathways” could be interrupted by cell phones and other things. And then once he firmed up his ability, he had to relearn how to ride a regular bike.

But how did he know? Well, both the backwards bicycle and the regular bike, come equipped with an excellent test for proficiency: it works or it doesn’t. But most things in life aren’t quite like this.

With emotional intelligence training, for example, it’s possible to think you know it. But, in Destin’s parlance, do you understand it? Destin argues that “knowing is not understanding.” But we could equally argue that understanding is not doing.

Change requires ongoing, consistent attention and practice.  Tweet This!

In the physical world, this is more obvious. I understand how to ride a bike. But the actual bike riding tells the tale. I understand how to shoot a basket, but my hit/miss ratio makes evident my ability to myself. I understand assertiveness and impulse control and various other dimensions of the EQ-i 2.0 but how I am actually doing day to day, is more complicated and less obvious.

Doing, requires ongoing, consistent attention and practice. Retraining your brain to deepen and broaden your emotional intelligence skills requires the same.

And the best way to do this, I think, is with ongoing coaching.

Destin escapes during another backwards bicycle crash

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