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No. 3175:
Reprogramming the Brain

by Andy Boyd

Today, practice, practice, practice. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I recently had an experience that you may have had at some point. Sitting down at my computer, the cordless mouse was inadvertently turned upside down. As I moved it with my hand, left was right; up was down. For fun I played with this awkward setup for a while. Not surprisingly, it took a lot of concentration to get the pointer where I wanted it. But in the back of my mind a question was lurking. If I used the mouse in this awkward fashion long enough, would the movement become second nature? Could I once again focus on my work and not on getting the mouse from point A to point B?

Upside down mouse
Upside down mouse

I was tempted to give it a try, but I didn't know how long it would take and, as I'm sure you'd agree, it's not a particularly useful skill to develop. And I didn't need to since an equally entertaining feat had been achieved by a creative engineer named Destin Sandlin using his backwards bicycle. The bicycle was completely ordinary except for one thing. It was rigged so that when the handlebars were turned left, the front wheel turned right. When the handlebars were turned right, the wheel turned left.

Like my upside-down mouse, the modified bicycle was awkward to ride. And not just awkward, but impossible. Time after time Destin challenged people to ride it a mere ten feet. Not one person could do so. And when we think about it, it's not surprising.

We aren't born with the ability to ride even a normal bike. It takes practice. In the process we fall many times. But after a while, something inside our brains puts all the pieces together. And it's a good thing because the coordination involved in riding a bicycle is complicated. Not only do we learn to ride, we don't have to consciously think about it - we just do it. Place someone on a backwards bicycle and those subconscious mechanisms kick in. And they're so deeply ingrained that we can't consciously overcome them.

Woman riding bike with cell phone
Woman riding bike with cell phone   Photo Credit: Flickr

Unless ... we practice. Destin began to practice on the backwards bicycle for five minutes a day. Finally, after eight months, something clicked - much like that moment when you first learn to ride a normal bicycle. As he continued to practice he became more proficient. So he decided to try something new. He decided to try riding a normal bicycle again. But he couldn't. He'd reprogrammed his brain to think in a different way. To ride a normal bicycle he'd have to reprogram it again. Fortunately, reversing the process wasn't as difficult. The riding program was apparently still tucked away in the recesses of his brain. It took about twenty minutes for Destin to find it. Not consciously, of course.

So how does the brain program and reprogram itself? It's a fascinating question. But even more fascinating is that we don't have to know how it works to make it happen. If we just keep at it, trying again and again, the brain will sort it out. Practice may not make perfect, but it does seem that practice makes programs.

Child playing violin
Child playing violin   Photo Credit: Flickr

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

An entertaining video of Destin Sandlin and the "backwards brain bicycle" can be found here.