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Why Don’t We Forget How to Ride a Bike? (scientificamerican.com)
141 points by Deinos on Dec 2, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 136 comments

Anecdotal, but perhaps interesting:

I rode a bike every few weeks with my father as a child. When I was 11, I had a pretty serious health condition including paralysis from the waist down. I had to spend several years retraining my muscles to be able to walk and run again.

I'm 22 now, and have just (literally in the past two weeks) started riding a bike again. I wasn't particularly confident but I was happily surprised to discover I had no issue just riding. I'm having trouble with U-turns and signalling, but this feels pretty cool considering that half of my life so far has gone by without riding.

Similarly, I suffered a traumatic bike crash when I was 8 (on literally the very first day of summer vacation, sigh...) and didn't end up riding a bike again until I was 24. Circled in a parking lot for a few hours to get my confidence back and then I was golden. The just-like-riding-a-bicycle aphorism really is scarily apt.

And congratulations on your recuperation!

Wow. It sounds like a tough way to grow up. Happy to read that you got back on your feet (perhaps even literally).

Thanks for sharing your experience.

To be fair, I think the article misses one of the points, though: for example, I had a time between 14 and about 22 when I didn't swim at all, having spent about 4 years doing swimming as a sport.

When I started swimming again at the age of 22, I could swim obviously - but it took me weeks of re-remembering all of the correct positions of my hands, which muscles to contract and how should I breathe in order to sustain that swimming for longer than a few laps.

I am pretty sure it's the same with the bike-riding.

> When I started swimming again at the age of 22, I could swim obviously - but it took me weeks of re-remembering all of the correct positions of my hands, which muscles to contract and how should I breathe in order to sustain that swimming for longer than a few laps.

But it's important to note that it took you only a few weeks. Originally learning all these movements probably took years of training and you still knew them so well that you could retrain your muscles to use them like back then. You didn't really forget. If I started swimming now, with near zero experience, I wouldn't be able to imitate that.

>> Originally learning all these movements probably took years of training and you still knew them so well that you could retrain your muscles to use them like back then.

Nah. I am actually making the opposite point: I had to consciously re-remember (from whatever I remembered my instructor told me) how it were back then and retrain myself to do it correctly all over again.

For example, getting over anxiety that I would be out of breath the next time I am breathing in. The only reason I could get over it was because I have consciously remembered I could do that when I was a kid, so it was just a matter of training and habit both of which I had to consciously push myself to acquire again.

"a few weeks" would only be related to "conscious remembering how it needs to be done", rather than "swimming like the old days". It took me a few months; constant attention and reading how to swim properly otherwise.

I think you are missing a tiny point, you are comparing being able not to drown to swimming efficiently. I didn't bike in ages, but I am fairly confident I can ride a bicycle all right. To go back doing cross country biking is a different matter, I will probably need to make mental efforts to keep the right posture, to keep the weight over my back wheel etc. But this doesn't mean I won't be able to ride my bike without crashing.

Swimming uses more muscles and requires more concentration. I had a large amount of form degradation when I took a years' break swimming, and it took a few weeks to get back in form. I was noticeably faster after I regained my form -- I'm not sure what the equivalent would be on a bike, since theoretically I would just need to pedal faster (requiring more raw strength, not form.)

I don't think there's much comparison to the bike example in the OP.

I agree. When I swam competitively taking even a week off was something you could feel in the water. It might only add a second or two to your splits, but you could definitely feel it. It was weirdly distressing, actually.

Shifting gears has always been a conscious activity for me, at least in part. Even biking a lot I can get surprised by a hill if I'm not consciously planning my shifting 5-10 seconds out and end up with my chain jumping off.

Our system is so large and full of over-capacity, somehow it takes extreme cases like yours to know it firsthand. Anyways, happy to know you're back on track.

I was once an avid rock climber, but stopped for many years. One night on a surf trip in Indonesia I had someone hold my beer while I climbed a palm tree, which was only about 15 feet high, but that's still high enough that you don't want to fall.

I got to the top of the trunk and reached up to grab one of the branches, and it was like, 'oh man, I'm so out of condition, I can barely grip this'. But then, accidentally, my feet cut loose.

A jolt of adrenaline shot through me, and I managed to hold on one handed to this slippery, slopey palm tree branch as my body swung away from the trunk of the tree. This whole chain of muscles from my fingers down to my lower back fired at once. I used to use those muscles all the time when I climbed regularly, but on the tree I didn't have access to that strength until the adrenaline kicked in, and then it was all there like it had never left.

Of course, because I was out of condition I strained every muscle in that chain and I had to skip a few days of surfing. But it had me thinking about procedural memory, and how it relates to skills where raw strength is a factor. Strength is memory. There is physical conditioning needed to utilize that strength without hurting yourself, but how strong you are is about neural pathways in your muscles, and how they fire, not the muscle itself. Your muscles are actually strong enough to rip the tendons from your bones.

Now I'm back into climbing, but when I was first starting out I had this weird experience where a hold that I was too weak to latch at the beginning of a session became easy by the end. It's counterintuitive, if anything you should be getting weaker as you wear yourself out, but, after a decade of not climbing much at all, my finger muscles were remembering how to fire the way they needed to to stick that particular hold, and they got stronger. Now I'm at the point where my strength has mostly returned, but my tendons aren't yet resilient enough to handle the stress when I'm at my limit, so I've got to be really careful. This was all a big revelation for me.

I came to love climbing as a sport partially because of what you're describing. You could be able to deadlift 450lb, do 10 pull ups with 100lb hanging off of your body, what have you, and still be an awful climber (like I was) despite having so much grip and upper and lower body strength. It's all about technique, and it takes years to nail it down. That feeling of progression is a lot of fun and it isn't linear at all.

I love bouldering most because sometimes you can brute force problems, sometimes you absolutely can't - you'll spend a few sessions trying to figure out this one pain in the ass movement or hold, then one day... You've got it, and you don't lose it. It's a ton of fun and I like to think it's actually great for your body and mind. Sometimes it feels a bit like wall-yoga.

Technique is super important. Female climbers obviously don't have the same kind of strength as men, which is why they climb differently. That doesn't mean that they're (much) worse than their male competitors.

In terms of strength to weight ratio, top women are pretty damn good, in sport they're only a couple letter grades behind the top men, and there are only 3 men in history who have outclimbed the best female climber, and only Adam Ondra, who is truly a genius of gymnastic climbing has sent 5.15D. At that level their technique is pretty close to being maxed out. They spend months, sometimes years training specifically to send those climbs. I wonder how much the disparity between top men and women climbers is accounted for by the size of their respective talent pools. There's just so many more men out there dedicated to climbing hard than women.

>There's just so many more men out there dedicated to climbing hard than women.

There's a study that looked into this for chess and found that for the amount of people who actually stick at it, 96% of the the split in chess can be accounted for by it being what you would expect for the amount of men and women playing.

>Why are (the best) women so good at chess? Participation rates and gender differences in intellectual domains

>A popular explanation for the small number of women at the top level of intellectually demanding activities from chess to science appeals to biological differences in the intellectual abilities of men and women. An alternative explanation is that the extreme values in a large sample are likely to be greater than those in a small one. Although the performance of the 100 best German male chess players is better than that of the 100 best German women, we show that 96 per cent of the observed difference would be expected given the much greater number of men who play chess. There is little left for biological or cultural explanations to account for. In science, where there are many more male than female participants, this statistical sampling explanation, rather than differences in intellectual ability, may also be the main reason why women are under-represented at the top end.


"the amount of people who actually stick to it" is an absolutely massive sampling bias, even at age under 10. Even among people of same general intelligence, areas of interest matters a lot.

I don't doubt there are sexism and cultural effects on participation disparities, but ask anyone raising chess-playing children and you'll find notable gender differences in interest level in chess from a young age. Similar is seen on mathematics. There's a classic book from Soviet Russia) where girls' math education was rather highly supported) by an author extremely excited about teaching math to small children. He found that his son lapped it up but he could never get his daughter interested (she would turn his math games into non-math social games), even though she was younger and so had earlier exposure and also benefit of his increased experience practicing teaching on her older brother first. She turned out to be academically successful, but not exceptional in math. Countless parents can tell similar stories.


> There's a classic book [..] by an author extremely excited about teaching math to small children. He found that his son lapped it up but he could never get his daughter interested (she would turn his math games into non-math social games)

It is ridiculous to suggest based on a sample of 2 (!) siblings that the sister’s precocity at drawing and storytelling and the brother’s greater interest in patterns and numbers is generally representative of their gender.

I was taught that women tended to be better than men at climbing due to the basic physics of their physiology. That pound for pound women have stonger muscles and that women tend to have lower center of gravity due to wider hips (though maybe this was just for pear shaped women?). And that this more than offset their shorter reach and lower strength. I’d be curious if this line of thinking is still fasionable in the sport, I never got very good at the sport, and havn’t climbed in like 16 years. It sounds like from another comment here that at the top tier men might only have the advantage of numbers and the top climbers simply tend to be men because they out number women climbers.

This kind of illustrates an important point that I think a lot of people don't realize. Strength isn't just muscle mass but also neurological conditioning. You're not just stimulating your muscles to get bigger when you work out but also refining the "programming" used to control them. In some cases, possibly like yours, this effect can dominate everything else. This is also separate from the application technique as well, such as in the cases of body builders losing to much smaller pro arm-wrestlers.

I can relate to the "getting easier when nearing the end" feeling.

I play cello and whenever I don't play for a week or more and I just sit down to play, my hands lack a lot of dexterity and are imprecise. Most people just play for half an hour to get it all back.

However, what I noticed is that if I play for a minute- or two, make an hour break and come back to play again, my hands are fully ready to play, as though I didn't have any longer (week) pause whatsoever. It's rally kind of magical.

Actually, in trying to describe the phenomenon to a friend I drew the analogy of a musician who hasn't picked up a guitar in a while trying to remember how to hit a particular chord. They kind of fumble around for a bit, and all of the sudden their fingers just fall into place and they got it.

My grand father who passed away this spring, at the ripe young age of 103, left his finely crafted 1920s era piano to me. We often talked about how both of us wanted to learn but never got around to it, and now to honor his memory I’ve started taking some lessons.

I haven’t played very long, just a couple of weeks, but even I can relate to this feeling. I try practicing a little every day and I mostly fumble around for the first 5-10 minutes before hitting my stride, and the song I just a few minutes earlier brutally murdered now actually sounds.. ok. It’s a wonderful feeling really, makes me feel like I have learned something.

You don't even need a special skill to see this effect. Just try to remember the name of someone you knew kind of well but haven't thought about in 5 years. Often you'll get that "tip of your tongue" feeling and the name will magically appear in your consciousness several minutes later.

> There is physical conditioning needed to utilize that strength without hurting yourself, but how strong you are is about neural pathways in your muscles, and how they fire, not the muscle itself. Your muscles are actually strong enough to rip the tendons from your bones.

Citation needed. Training for strength also increases your muscle mass, I'm not ready to believe that strength is only about neural pathways.

Think of olympic lifters. Pyyros Dimas, a guy who isn't "huge" (compared to say football players or body builders) won a Gold for the clean and jerk at 215 kgs (474 lbs) in the 85kg weight class (187 lbs). There is something else going on there besides muscle mass when a <187 lb guy can throw up almost 500 pounds completely over his head from the ground.

Here's a good article on the impact of your neural pathways on strength:


from the article:

> Jenkins found evidence that the nervous system activates more of those motor neurons -- or excites them more frequently -- when subjected to high-load training. That increased excitation could account for the greater strength gains despite comparable growth in muscle mass.

Adrenaline does wonders for the excitation-induced stimulation of the skeletal muscle system

It’s also the explanation for noob gains (getting much, much stronger in the first 6 months of lifting or so, then tapering off as your ability to recruit muscle catches up with the muscle you already have). If you’ve ever lifted, the feeling of learning to use your body more efficiently is pretty obvious.

Nitpicking: adrenaline doesn’t act that rapidly. Rather it’s the sympathetic response to a perceived threat.

A.k.a. instinct. Wouldn't the majority of people in this situation, past climbing experience or not, try to hold on to that branch with all possible strength? It's either that or possibly severe injury/death. It's possible the climbing experience makes the OP do this action in a better way than people with no such experience though.

Yes, as illustrated in this video: https://youtu.be/dLBJA8SlH2w

> had this weird experience where a hold that I was too weak to latch at the beginning of a session became easy by the end

It is counter intuitive and counter to my experience when I get back into climbing. Perhaps you have some muscular endurance talent or something, or climbed long enough to create some long lasting physical adaptations.

I climbed for 13 years, with varying levels of intensity, and stopped for a little over 10 before returning. In the time off I climbed sporadically, but never really stuck with it for more than a month or so. At my peak back in the day I was redpointing gym 13c and could do 35 pullups, and on my first day back I was more like 5.8 and could do one set of 3 pullups and not much more. Now, 6 weeks in I'm pulling hard 5.12 moves here and there but I wouldn't call myself a 5.12 climber, my endurance is shit and when I get into tricky sequences it becomes apparent that the more refined aspects of technique are not coming back quite like riding a bicycle.

>It's counterintuitive, if anything you should be getting weaker as you wear yourself out, but, after a decade of not climbing much at all, my finger muscles were remembering how to fire the way they needed to to stick that particular hold, and they got stronger.

I think it’d be less surprising if you thought about it as remembering more efficient positioning, than getting stronger; which ofc is what I imagine is happening. I suppose thats unlikely to beat out the wear of the day, if you actually end up feeling stronger than when you started

I'll suggest that we don't forget to how to ride a bike because a very important part of that skill is confidence and self-belief. It's similar to swimming. Does anybody ever forget how to swim?

If you don't believe you can ride a bike then you'll tend to wobble around slowly and cautiously and overcorrect by manual steering. If you don't believe you can swim then you'll try to constantly hold your face too high above the water and you will struggle because keeping your head high is not an ideal posture for buoyancy and balance.

If you believe you can ride a bike then you will set off confidently and move faster, which helps with balance and control.

These are examples of abilities in which it's easy to get stuck in a local optima which feels safer but is very inefficient, such as cycling with your feet ready to touch the ground or swimming with your head high above the water.

This theory, of course, doesn't mean the research in the article is wrong, but maybe it's just a part of the truth.

I don’t think that the confidence requirement is a major factor. I suspect that activities that require similar coordination of motor skills but which aren’t dangerous to fail at are also hard to forget. I’m thinking of things like juggling or tying a shoe.

I think this is a great point. More confidence -> more speed -> more stable bicycle.

Part of me wonders if learning to ride a bike actually isn't all that difficult in the grand scheme of things, but we all remember it as being tricky because we did it at such a young (and uncoordinated) age.

If you remove the pedals and have a kid just push themselves around with their feet first, they learn how to ride a bike WAY faster. In part because they don't have to learn to pedal at the same time, but I think it's more because they are confident they can put their feet down to catch themselves whenever they want without getting caught in the pedals. Training wheels make learning to ride a bike harder in many cases. Either the kid relies on the training wheels to hold them up instead of balancing, or if they don't have the ground conditions to do that they fear the training wheels catching dirt or grass or a rock and suddenly flinging them around making them crash.

In one episode of Canada's Worst Driver, when the host finds out a contestant never learned to ride a bike, they went out to teach him. It didn't take very long, though offhand I can't remember a duration.

>Part of me wonders if learning to ride a bike actually isn't all that difficult

This is my theory as well. I can't think of anyone (baring some handicap or injury) who has attempted to learn and wasn't able to ride.

Yes, I forgot how to swim. Learned it in primary school and didn't practice at all until Uni. Nearly 10 years later and I struggle to keep from drowning.

Yep. A bike is self stabilizing due to the design of the dropout on the fork. If you lean left it automatically turns left which will push you upright again.

It is hard to not stay balanced on a bike. Unless you are on uneven or slippery surface, or do other stunts, the only way you can really fall is if you are moving too slow or you are deliberately forcing your handlebars to turn very hard.

But, anecdotally at least, you can unlearn how to ride a bike: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFzDaBzBlL0

I think you are on to something. Biking doesn't require any special muscles or strength so you can do it purely from memory. With other activities you also need some physical skills untrained people don't have.

When I did kickboxing I used to be able to kick really high but after a few years of not doing it the muscle memory is still there but I just don't have the strength and flexibility to go really high.

> Years later, when we discover these relics and hop on, it’s as if we never stopped biking.

I'd like to challenge this. Barring scientific evidence to this fact, it is at best an anecdotal evidence, and so I will submit my own anecdote:

I didn't ride a bike for about 10 years. When I started riding again, I definitely felt unsteady for the first few days or weeks compared to my previous riding ability. I was unsteady enough that I thought at the time, "People that say you don't forget how to ride a bike are full of shit."

Granted, my ability to ride came back faster than if I was learning from scratch. It might become a discussion determining different shades of "forget" -- but if we get to that point, then we've conceded the crisp assertion that "we don't forget how to ride a bike".

> When I started riding again, I definitely felt unsteady for the first few days or weeks compared to my previous riding ability.

This can happen to frequent riders simply as a result of switching to a different bike with different geometry from what you're used to. Eg. if you normally ride a mountain bike with a fairly upright posture and suddenly switch to a road bike with a low and narrow handlebars and toe overlap, or if you raise your seat after being accustomed to keeping it very low.

I had a similar experience, but with cross-country skiing. I was an avid skier from age 2 to 22. I raced in high school, spent every weekend out skiing (skating and traditional), had no problems on any trail, no matter how steep or difficult, etc.

In college, I took up downhill skiing. Twenty years later, I tried cross-country skiing again and could barely stay upright! I went in with full confidence and ended up shuffling around like a zombie on ice.

>I didn't ride a bike for about 10 years. When I started riding again, I definitely felt unsteady for the first few days or weeks compared to my previous riding ability. I was unsteady enough that I thought at the time, "People that say you don't forget how to ride a bike are full of shit."

Err, "feeling unsteady" while still riding is not the same as forgetting how to ride and falling like a kid who tries to ride for their first time.

Seconded. It takes serious mileage and time to regain full fluency. I am sure this is measurable - I actually fell once after a few years break, as I was not used to manoeuvring between cars. It's like saying "you don't forget how to play the piano". Well you don't, and you do, depends on how you define the "knowing" discussed - something the article did not do for obvious reasons.

"Forgetting to ride a bike" is not about fluency. Of course you'll lose the fluency if you were advanced biker at some point.

It's about forgetting HOW TO RIDE, the very basic trick of balancing the bike.

the very basic trick of balancing the bike

Which is exactly the point the OP makes to that sentence as if we never stopped biking I think. At the least I'd say it's worded incorrectly. Sure your brain remembers the key part of how to do it, but the finer motor skills, balancing in hard situations etc don't just come back from one instance to the next and take extra practice.

I don't think anyone seriously says that e.g. a biker doing hard mountain bike rides or bicycle stunts etc will be as good after a 10 year hiatus in which he never touched a bike.

Bike riding isn't special. Like every skill you learn, your proficiency will suffer if you don't practice it. That doesn't mean you will entirely forget how to apply that skill, even if lack of practice means you've lost proficiency.

Being shaky and falling over is the difference between remembering how to ride a bicycle and not remembering how to ride a bicycle. You remembered how to ride, you just weren't very good.

Anecdotally I didn't ride a bicycle from 11 to 19 (didn't buy a new one when I outgrew the old one) and I had the same shaky experience you had. Recently I bought a gravel bike, coming from road and city bikes. The first few days on the new bike were not shaky but a little unsteady. The comment of another reply about the importance of the frame geometry looks spot on.

Not ridden a bike for 20 years, found a bike in the beach hut we were borrowing, different kind to what I rode, rode it a few miles down the shore with no real problems.

There is one way to forget how to ride a bike, learn to ride a bike that has the steering reversed.

Reminded me of this Smarter Every Day video, which is definitely worth a watch:


(The Backwards Brain Bicycle)

I also rode this kind of bike once as a kid on a fair. Same thing, the reflex was to strong and familiar to consciously override it. I had a similar experience like this when I wanted to learn snowboarding, I tried to do it myself without lessons. Learning to stand, slide (front and back) and break on a board was 'easy'. But I was taking to long teaching myself to turn a slide into a slalom properly. Turned out my reflex to break was to strong and I had to force myself to unlearn this reflex.

From the excellent smartereverday youtube channel


Strongly recommend to watch the above video.He does an experiment on how long it takes to get comfortable by changing the handle bars.

Does anyone find anything odd or unique about the fact that we don’t forget how to ride a bike? I can’t think of any similar activity that people do forget.

Skiing is something else where, for me at least, the 'don't forget' effect applies.

I used to ski in a one to two week block every year, for about 20 years (i.e. 2 weeks on then 50 weeks off). Once I reached a certain level (being able to do parallel turns) I never really forgot how to do them, although the first few runs of a new season would be a bit tentative. Something that continued to improve year on year was my ability to turn at speed on steep slopes. I think this was due to learned (and remembered) confidence as well as muscle memory, in particular knowing that because a turn would work, a sudden increase in speed didn't mean automatic disaster. I also learned to lean out of a turn (i.e. down the mountain, the opposite of a turn on a bike) and this was also a confidence thing that I didn't forget, and which turns safer still. Unfortunately, my increasing confidence was offset by decreasing fitness so I reached a plateau. That said, on my last couple of trips, I didn't fall once. I never took a multi-year break to test the concept properly.

Agreed, skiing very similar, I started skiing late at 40, after much - time expense falls - I am now a proficient skier, (black runs moguls etc no problem). If I go skiing after a long break, I worry still worry though whether I still ski?, but aleays come back to me immediately without having to think.

After a break of ~15 years I went for a couple of hours on an indoor slope. The main issue was fitness. I was able to go over a small jump by the end of the time. Not as graceful as I would have been.

Very similar to my experience with cycling with long breaks.

I’ve never skied, but it seems very similar to riding a bike in that you need to make constant adjustments to maintain balance and avoid obstacles without thinking consciously about every adjustment.

Once you reach a certain level of experience, the mechanics of making a turn become second nature and the degree of conscious active control depends more on the type of slope. A well groomed piste is the equivalent of a freeway and you spend more time checking the traffic (the other skiers) than looking at the road. In contrast, (for me at least) a steep gully or a natural mogul field [0] requires more active conscious thinking about when to turn.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mogul_skiing

Sports movements seem to fall in the same category. Soccer. Basketball. Swimming. Tennis.

I feel like I’ve forgotten most of the events in my life. I can’t remember was being a child or a teenager was like. I think my personality has changed, but I’m not sure because I can’t remember it.

I’ve also forgotten most of how to speak Spanish, which I learned as a child. It does come back quicker than the first time with a lot of practice, but I can’t speak it on demand without a lot of re-learning.

I also ride mountain bikes and find that if I take extended breaks of months or longer, I forget how to do the more difficult riding, and I have to re-learn/practice until I’m comfortable again.

Calligraphy, handwriting, drawing, painting etc etc you loose it if you don't work on it regularly.

Same goes for programming. Take a year or two off and see what your remember about algorithms and protocols.

> Take a year or two off and see what your remember about algorithms and protocols.

And this is the main problem with algorithmic interviews. This type of programming has little to do with the stuff most of us do on a daily basis. So we forget much of it a year or two after our last interview, and have to go back and spend weeks or months reviewing when preparing to interview again. Seems like a waste of time.

For advanced techniques, I agree, but the same probably applies to advanced bicycling techniques. Basic handwriting is probably not something you would forget, just like basic bicycling.

Some possible equivalents from cycling:

Riding technical trails on a MTB. Without regular practice you lose a lot of pace.

Street or park BMX tricks (tail whips, flairs, flips, grinds etc). These require skill plus confidence. Without regular practice the confidence won't be there to attempt them.

Programming isn't a physical activity though. I'm sure you'd remember (or pick up incredibly fast) how to touch type after those two years.

Despite what the article suggests about playing a musical instrument, I picked up an instrument that I used to play (for ~10 years), a couple years ago, and I was completely lost. Tone, pitch, form, fingering, tuning, reading sheet music, knowing scales -- pretty much everything was just gone. It was not at all "like riding a bike". I played around for a few weeks but it felt like I was starting from scratch.

I’m a musician, so I considered the example of playing an instrument. It’s an interesting example, because it certainly requires a lot of muscle memory that becomes “automatic” with practice, but it also usually requires conscious thought about what you’re playing (which basic bicycling does not). I would expect that the basic muscle memory parts would be hard to forget, but that the conscious decisions would be easy to forget.

I’ve never taken long breaks from my main instruments, but it sounds like you forgot both aspects of playing. I did play trombone for a few years starting in middle school, but haven’t played in over a decade. I definitely remember the basic slide positions for notes and a few of the common scales, but I wonder how well I would be able to play the trombone now.

I didn't play my clarinet at all for 5ish years (and was only playing it once or twice a year for the 5 previous years), and getting a good sound out of it was impossible[1], but basic technique (e.g. scales, arpeggios, sight reading) was still about as good as 4 years in to when I was learning as a kid.

1: At least some of this is mouth muscles just being too weak (in another thread an ex rock climber talks about climbing a tree and that's a similar effect), some of it is that when I quit, I was still learning to make it sound good, so I never had unconscious control for a lot of the subtle changes I had to make. The rest is probably just things I forgot.


Definitely. There are cases where people have forgotten their first spoken language, after enough years away from it.

I'm not sure whether or not this belongs in the same category as riding a bicycle.

Because the main "skill" to riding a bike is actually overcoming your fear that it'll tip over. A bike is naturally stable while moving and your body's natural sense of balance will do the rest.

Only when you're actually scared, don't trust the bike and try to overcompensate will you tip over.

You can "get" riding a bike on your first attempt if you're trusting enough. I have seen children do it.

It took myself a few hours before my granddad lost his patience and pushed me down a steep hill. On the way down it clicked (my dad had to catch me because i was too distracted to brake).

I think it the same thing riding bike isn't intrinsically hard to learn, it's about confidence and overcoming fear a lot too. Same goes for downhill skiing, havent done it in years, but would not hesitate.

“Most of us learn how to ride a bike during childhood. But as we grow older, many of us stop riding and put those once-beloved bikes in storage.”

As a Dutch person, this is so weird to read. How can you get by in day-to-day life without a bike ? Mine broke the other day, nothing big just a snapped cable, but I was without a bike for all of 2 days and it felt like being handicapped.

There is a lot to unpack here, honestly.

Simple infrastructure is one of them. Many folks don't have safe options for bicycle transportation, regardless of whether you live in a city or not. Lack of sidewalks, lack of bike lanes, and lack of folks watching out for you. If you live outside a small town, you might have to take non-main roads and have a much longer commute as well.

Weather is an issue in some areas as well. While I can get studded snow tires for a bike here in Norway, I couldn't get them in Indiana. Not only are there these things, but employers frowned upon people arriving to work sweaty or wet (from rain). There were often no employee break rooms to change in, let alone a safe place to store one's bicycle or accessories while one is at work.

Another thing I'd like to point out is that the bicycles themselves were differently styled, at least judging what I saw in Amsterdam. Often, they had wide seats with springs and decently wide tires and a basket or two to hold your stuff. A bike built for comfort plus a place to put stuff helps tremendously.

This leads me to my final point: Distance. I imagine that you can reasonably travel to the grocery store and whatnot on a bicycle. Unfortunately, things are pretty spread out in much of the US. You might have to drive for 20 minutes to get to the grocery store because there aren't any near your house or on your way home from work. This takes much longer on a bicycle. If you do have convenience in this area, you are often paying more for it.

They drive. And yes, it's as bad as it sounds. My wife can't ride a bike (balance issues) so she drives everywhere. If I don't have milk for my morning coffee I hop on the bike and it's 5 minutes or less to get to the supermarket. She wouldn't go out to just buy milk since just finding a parking spot takes 5 minutes.

There isn’t the road infrastructure for most people to feel comfortable riding a bike in the US, so people give up riding bikes after the get a driver’s license, and their bike handling skills and confidence go down.

Also, most bikes in the US aren’t practical like dutch bikes, they’re harder to maintain and they don’t have fenders or racks.

As a fellow Dutchman I must confess my bike is in the shed most days of the year. I live in the suburbs of Arnhem so maybe its different from cities like Utrecht/Amsterdam. Most transport for me is either by car or walking.

Where i live there is no why you find flat ground, if you drove a bike you spend most of your time up and go which is very exhausting and don't forget not everyone has special roads for bikes.

How flat is Netherlands compared to other countries?

It's flatter than average, but I think most people bringing up flatness are non-cyclists. Regular cyclists know that wind speed is just as important, and the Netherlands has higher wind speed than average. If you've never ridden into a strong headwind you might not realize how much it slows you down.

What always gets me is that you don't really feel a tailwind. Riding just becomes so easy, and you'd think it's you, or your bike and the street are in a good condition.. and then you try to turn around. A great metaphor in life as well, really.

Yeah, I remember as a kid I covered 20 miles in under an hour and at first thought that I had just gotten in way better shape. Then I rode back...

> It's flatter than average

It's the flattest country in Europe, or close runner up.


> How can you get by in day-to-day life without a bike ?

By living in most cities in the USA? :D

I’ve only been to the US once (San Francisco) and US cities are strange to me. Especially the fact that there is no real city centre, just blocks of buildings with wide streets between them.

The city isn't flat either... it has many hills in the middle that are 10-12% grade and a few at around 30%.

Most American cities do have a city center though ... which ones have you visited.

Laziness and obesity.

Because we live in a different kind of cities where we cant use bikes as much. It takes me 1.5h each day in seoul to reach my destination and we have an excellent public transportation.

Probably depends on how much practice you had back in the days.

I rode a bike for 5 years, 3 of them every day before I had a pause of 8 years. Hopped on a bike and it was as if I never had the pause.

My girlfriend just learned to bike on a parking lot at her grandma's, she did this every other weekend for an hour or so. When she started biking as an adult again, she had many problems and even fell a few times on the street.

Two unique things about bikes is that it is harder the slower you go, and it uses a skill, balance, that we practice every day as we stand and walk. When you are a child, afraid of falling, with no experience, you want to go very slow. And that is the hardest way to ride a bike. As you increase speed it wants to stay more stable (on a flat surface).

Just the knowledge that you have done it before, that it is an easy thing, means that in the first second you are accelerating to a speed where it is in fact easy to ride a bike. I don't think that particular example is as much about skill as it is about confidence.

Frankly, the experience "you don't forget how to ride a bike" was true for me the very first time I rode a bike. My mom was holding on to the bike, then we moved faster, then a few seconds later I realized my mom had stopped behind me and I had been doing it on my own. We just had reached a speed where that became easy. And then the trick was not panicking ;)

Recently, over Thanksgiving break, nieces and nephews applied peer pressure on me to ride a bicycle "and do one of those cool wheelie things". I avoided an ER visit but the resulting process failure proves the hypothesis painfully incorrect.

Were you adept at wheelies before? I’ve been slowly improving my wheelie over the past year or so, I’ve found it doesn’t require daily training but if I go a few weeks without doing one it takes a bit of practice at first.

It’s a weird sensation when you find the right balance spot, and you are looking straight ahead (rather than looking down), it’s like you become the bike.

How much more do you weigh from the last time you did one of those cool wheelie things regularly?

I teach kids to ride in 30 seconds, routinely.

Just don't lie to them -- kids spend all the learning time discovering that the right way is opposite to what they were told. How do I teach? I tell them to balance with the handlebars, and steer by leaning. It always works, and fast! Try it, it's fun.

So the answer to the title question is just that riding is very, very easy.

I have a slight physical impairment that makes it harder (but not impossible) to do things that require coordination - like riding a bike and swimming. I had to learn to adapt. Last year I rode a bike for the first time in over 25 years and I struggled with balance and coordination. It would take me at least a week to remember. I also have to concentrate on my form to swim. If I was dropped in a pool, I could swim back but it would take me awhile to remember my proper form so so I wouldn’t favor one side over the other.

I was also a fitness instructor for a little over 10 years, and stopped about 6 years ago because of $life. I remembered some of my old step routines, but I struggled trying to get all my body parts to work together again to do it. There are a few things that I physical can do, but it takes me a lot longer and a lot more practice to get it.

Evolutionarily speaking, what is the impetus for this?

It isn't like a dangerous situation, where you would benefit from remembering it for the rest of your life, despite only experiencing it once.

Also it isn't like remembering something that you do every day.

The closest approximation I can think of is something that happens seasonally, it is probably beneficial to remember how to harvest the berries of the bonga bonga tree, despite not having seen them for 51 weeks.

Is long term memory not fine grained enough to bother differentiating between 'a year ago' and '20 years ago'?

(Warning: layman’s comment) I would guess part of it is that this needs fast feedback loops. That means it gets controlled from ‘lower-level’ parts of your nervous system, possibly (¿partly?) from the spinal cord (like the patellar reflex https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patellar_reflex), rather than from the brain.

Those parts of you nervous system have to be fast, and may be less flexible because of it, increasing both learning time (you can learn what you have to do to cycle in seconds: “OK, I’ll sit there, put my hands there, my feet there, keep my balance and make these movements, but actually learning how to do it takes a lot longer) and forgetting time.

I also guess that makes cycling and walking so relaxing as activities. You’re doing work, but can let the more cerebral parts of your brain wander around without giving much attention to what’s going on (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind-wandering). Of course, that’s dependent on environment. A walk in the park is more relaxing than crossing Times square, and cycling on separated cycle lanes more relaxing than the hell of navigating between cars, because, in both cases, your ‘higher brain’ must attend to the situation.

These memories are stored in the centre of the brain and thus presumably evolved well before sentience.

Learning how to climb a tree or swim in a fast river are very important survival skills and the ability to not forget them would give you an advantage.

Good point. I'm having trouble imagining cave men taking swimming lessons but yeah the mechanism seems to fit.

>It isn't like a dangerous situation, where you would benefit from remembering it for the rest of your life

When you first start it feels dangerous. It's much easier to evolve a feeling of danger, caused by things like unexpected body movement, than to evolve an instinctive ability to calculate the true danger.

Re remembering a dangerous situation, I was thinking more 'that hairy thing with the pointy teeth just ate my friend, better stay away from it'

Cycling seems rational? In a way that adrenaline wouldn't help you remember.

Think of soldiers doing drills. They aren't in danger when they actually do the drill. The idea is that they do it automatically when they are I danger, rather than just freezing. I'm not sure actually shooting at new recruits while training them would lead to effective training, but we could try it :).

Falls and near falls are certainly enough to get some adrenaline flowing. Riding through the woods or particularly rough roads where your wheels scoot to the side on obstacles is exciting too.

My understanding of basic training comes only from popular media, but some of the drills at night without warning to enhance the simulation of danger. Fear of the drill sergeant may work too.

This also works for a unicycle. It took me over a year to learn how to ride when I was a kid, as an adult I can still do it. My mother also learned as a child and was able to do it again as an adult. In my experience, there is a weird difference in the type of balance. I know how to hold my chest/core to stay up straight, but my unconscious ability to hold that stable isn't the same. Hence I wobbled a bit more, but I didn't fall.

> One thing we know for sure, however, is simple sequences of movements we internalize, even far in the past, are typically preserved for a lifetime.

There may be a way to hack this? That is, store declarative data into procedural memory, so that we never ever forget it?

But maybe there are not many memories that need to be preserved over a long period of time. I can't really think of anything that I would need to remember forever.

There's an extremely well-known hack: rote learning. It's fallen somewhat out of favour, but it's an excellent way to appear superhuman.

* I learnt hundreds of digits of pi by singing them over and over again until my mouth knew how to form the numbers before my brain caught up.

* People in my class at school tried to learn the French verbs which take "être" by means of various different mnemonic devices; I just ignored the tricks and repeated a phrase on and off for a couple of hours. ("Monty arrived at the entrance when all the rest had returned with Tom; Pa's Moorish descent gives him a venturesome sort of nature." for "monter", "arriver", "entrer", "aller", and so on.)

* amo/amas/amat/amamus/amatis/amant, and indeed most Latin grammar is still taught this way.

* The entire poetry recital field.

Add a little song and dance around the narrative.

It's ridiculous how well I can still remember many of the kids' songs and poems, even though I have little recollection of anything else left from that time.

My wife knew how to ride a bike as a child, and now does not know how, and BOY does it get her angry if someone says you never forget.

Offshoot topic. I’ve always wondered, Does programming work like riding a bike? Has anyone taken years off programming and come back to it? What was it like?

I spent a lot of time writing TI-BASIC and PHP/MySQL when I was about 11-13. Stopped programming in any serious capacity for about a decade.

When I picked up coding again as an adult, I found that although I had forgotten language-specific details (function names and arity, syntax, semantics, and so on), the flow and rhythm of programming had never really left me.

Since then, I've occasionally offered advice or informal tutelage to friends who are picking up programming and have asked for help. My observation is that programming seems to "click" with those who have, at one point or another, built a trivial project or script without following along a tutorial too closely. It doesn't matter how long it's been since they last wrote a line of code, the actual practice of coding sticks with them, and it greatly eases the challenge of further learning. Rote activities like codecademy don't seem to act the same way, since the user never gets into a flow state.

The article linked in the OP doesn't mention natural language learning, but I wonder where that sits in the proposed declarative/procedural binary. There's no getting around the brute memorization involved, but it does seem like certain language acquisition skills can be applied abstractly to grammar comprehension, semantic pattern recognition and the like, and can consequently make one's third or fourth language easier to learn than one's second.

Perhaps it is not that difficult to learn how to ride a bike as an adult and lack of previous experience is hard to measure.

Without evidence - I don't think it's that we don't forget how to ride but that an adult, any adult, can just get on a bike and ride it after operation is explained. Since everyone, or most everyone, rode one as a child we confuse this with "remembering" how to ride rather than having the adult reflexes and balance to naturally ride.

Looking that the case of adult non-western immigrants learning to ride in places like the Netherlands or Denmark suggests it is not as easy as simply explaining the operation of a bike [0]. I'm not sure if they learn more quickly than children - that could be interesting to see.

Tangentially, and anecdotally, I can see that children in Denmark (or at least Copenhagen) seem to learn more quickly than American kids to ride adult bikes because they never use training wheels. They first start on strider-type bikes that teaches them the balance needed, so once they graduate to pedal bikes they don't need the training wheel and pick it up fairly quickly - at least relative to my experience as a kid in the US.

[0] https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/apr/28/utrecht-cycli...

Adults who have never learned how to ride a bike can’t “just get on a bike and ride it” no matter how much explaining you do.

It’s one of those things immigrants need to learn when they move to this country (the Netherlands) and it’s certainly not as easy as you suggest.

I taught an adult to ride a bike and he was pretty good after only an hour or so, to be honest. It's true that adults can't just do it, but it's also nowhere near as hard as it for children.

We used a balance bike (well normal bike with seat down and pedals removed) on 3 occasions, probably a total of 1h30 at most. Then put pedals on and kiddo just set off and rode.

There's probably a wide variance in these things.

This is immediately falsified by grabbing an adult, any adult, and watch him learn a thing, anything, that relies on subtle balance and body control.

I imagine they'd have a hard time keeping the front bar straight. I remember that being the main issue when I was learning it as a kid.

Had I not acquired that sense of balance associated with the front bar's alignment through practice, I don't think I would have been able to hear someone say "conservation of angular momentum", pick up a bike and start riding it.

An anecdote:

I own a recumbent bike. Learning to ride it wasn't difficult, I was able to wobble around and had to regularly put my foot down the first couple minutes and got my balance for real within a day. I let other people ride it when they ask me about it and my experience seems fairly normal.

By contrast, at one point I went 10 years without riding a bike. When I got back on, I could immediately ride. No wobbling, no learning curve.

I've seen videos of other adults learning to ride bikes and it doesn't take them long to learn how to ride but it's not immediate.

But why do we seem to forget more complex stuff like playing the piano which is also procedural?

Just like we don't forget how to drive a car. It becomes instinctive.

I've learned how to ride a bike twice and I've forgotten it twice - I still don't quite believe people "never forget" how to ride a bike (given a long enough time).

Has this actually been tested for a large number of years? I learnt to drive a manual car and then proceeded to not drive for ten years. When I tried to drive again I essentially had to learn again from scratch (quite dangerous actually as I was still fully licensed and everything). Would it actually be the same for a bike? Ten years is quite a long time.

I did my driving lessons and my test in a Vauxhall Astra Manual. I then drove a Ford Fiesta Semi-Automatic for 2 and a half years before it failed (edit: late last year). At the dealership remained one second-hand one-previous-owner Vauxhall Astra Manual. Took it for a test drive that day, I was shifting gears and using the clutch perfectly in a large car park after only 5 or so minutes. I drove it back to the dealership myself. I drove it home the following Monday. I passed my Advanced Driving Test in it earlier this year. Some things are definitely not forgotten.

Last time I cycled frequently I was in high school, 15 years ago. After that, I’ve almost exclusively just walked or used public transport. Recently I acquired a used bike and it took literally zero practice or adjustment to get going again. My technique may not be at the level of a serious road cyclist but then again it never was.

On the contrary, I used to cycle often when I was around 10 or so, and then never cycled when I was older. Then, when I was 21, I needed to use a bike to travel around work, but it turned out for some reason I had completely forgotten how to ride and had to pick up the skill anew. It's still a mystery to me how I completely forgot the skill and had to relearn it.

> I learnt to drive a manual car

I think it's important to consider a few things. How long did you drive a manual after originally learning it? How long did it take you to learn it? How long did it take you to "relearn" it after the ten years?

My personal assumption is that all that comes close to the rush of the animal hunting experience rewires a part of the brain.

I don't think many kids/people even learn how to ride it properly. I see it all the time, causal riders don't know how to mount or dismount and keep their saddle to low so they can put their feet down and I guess feel safer. It depends of what you mean by "riding" a bike. If it is just not falling over, then yeah, but also most people don't forget how to hold a pencil.

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