Once you learn how to ride a bike, that skill sticks with you no matter how much time has passed since your feet last touched the pedals — unless you're riding this bike.

The bicycle pictured above may look like any other bike, but it’s been engineered so that the wheel turns in the opposite direction of the handlebars. In other words, if you turn right, the wheel turns left.

Recently, Destin Sandlin, an engineer and the personality behind the YouTube channel Smarter Every Day, attempted to ride such a bike.

He expected it to be as easy as…well, riding a bike, but it was much more difficult than he'd anticipated. In fact, it was impossible.

"This bike revealed a very deep truth to me," he says in a video. "I had the knowledge of how to operate the bike, but I did not have the understanding."

Sandlin learned firsthand that the brain's "algorithm" for riding a bike is both complicated and extremely fragile.

"If you change any one part, it affects the entire control system," he says.

In order to learn how to ride this new bike, Sandlin realized he'd first have to unlearn how to ride a bike in the first place.

Why? Because the skill of bike riding is so deeply ingrained in your brain's neural network that it resists even a small change to the algorithm.

Neuroscientist Robert Burton uses the example of a riverbed to explain how neural networks work and why they make a skill like bike riding difficult to alter.

"Imagine the gradual formation of a riverbed," he writes in "Breaking Free from Myths about Teaching and Learning." "The initial flow of water might be completely random — there are no preferred routes in the beginning. But once a creek has been formed, water is more likely to follow this newly created path of least resistance. As the water continues, the creek deepens and a river develops."

After eight months of practice, Sandlin was able to carve out a new neural pathway and learn how to ride the backwards bicycle. However, upon mastering skill, it was then difficult for him to ride a normal bike.

Interestingly, his 5-year-old son, who's been riding a bike for three years, was able to learn how to ride the backwards bicycle in just two weeks.

How was his child able to learn the skill so much faster? Sandlin attributes it to children having more neuroplasticity than adults.

"It's clear from this experiment that children have a much more plastic brain than adults," he says. "That's why the best time to learn a language is when you're a young child."

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MNN promotional photo: SmarterEveryDay/YouTube

Laura Moss writes about a variety of topics with a focus on animals, science, language and culture. But she mostly writes about cats.

What a funky bike can teach us about how we learn
Making one small change to a regular bicycle can render it impossible to pedal.