Why Don’t We Forget How to Ride a Bike?

Many of us learn how to ride a bike at a young age. But, as we grow, most stop riding. Luckily, when we get the urge, we can just hop on and ride again. In fact, there’s an interesting science behind mastering cycling. Keep reading to learn more.
Why Don’t We Forget How to Ride a Bike?

Last update: 16 May, 2021

Learning to ride a bike is no easy feat. However, forgetting is even harder. For most people, even after decades-long hiatuses, cruising still feels like a breeze. Most importantly, the key is how exactly the brain remembers the task. Mastering how to cycle requires a ton of higher-level thinking. Have you ever wondered why it seems that you can’t forget how to ride a bike? Firstly, your brain’s motor cortices plan and execute precise muscle control. 

Secondly, the brain helps you balance and time your pedal strokes. Lastly, the basal ganglia keep these movements fluid rather than jerky. “It’s precisely this colossal load of brain coordination that ensures the skill sticks around,” says Konczak.  Jürgen Konczak is a brilliant neuroscientist and biomechanics expert at the University of Minnesota. 

Therefore, we use every muscle movement and subsequent brain connection when we ride a bike and other activities. For example, dancing, playing sports, and walking. But not all at the same time. So, when the time comes to hop back on the saddle. We already tuned and oiled all the necessary moving parts. There’s never a bad time to start pedaling again. It’s truly a skill that lasts a lifetime.

“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle-

Scientific truth behind mastering cycling

Believe it or not, there’s scientific truth to the saying that you never forget how to ride a bike. Even if you can’t remember other things. For instance, phone numbers, birthdays, or where you parked your car. It’s very likely that even if you haven’t been on a bicycle in decades, you’ll remember. So, you can climb on and ride away just fine. Why? 

Neuropsychologist Boris Suchan of Germany’s Ruhr University Bochum perfectly explains it in his Scientific American article. The way memories are inside the brain plays a major role. Therefore, it explains why we can’t forget how to ride a bike. Most of us learn how to ride a bike during childhood. But, as we grow older, many of us stop riding.

Sadly, we put those bikes we once loved in storage. But, years later, we rediscover these relics and hop on. In other words, it’s as if we never stopped biking. Isn’t this incredibly surprising? After all, our memories let us down in so many other instances. For example, when trying to remember the name of a place. 

Likewise, when trying to remember a person we once knew or where we put our keys. So, how is it that we can ride a bike when we didn’t practice for years? As it turns out, the brain stores different types of memories in different regions. In other words, long-term memory divides into two types: declarative and procedural.

Two types of memory

In short, our long-term memories divide into two: declarative memory and procedural memory. There are two types of declarative memory. Most importantly, recollections of experiences refer to episodic memory. For example, the day we started school and our first kiss. This type of recall is our interpretation of an episode or event that occurred. On the other hand, factual knowledge is part of semantic memory.

For instance, the capital of France. These two types of declarative memory content have one thing in common. Not only are they aware of the knowledge. But they can also perfectly communicate the memories to others. However, we anchor skills such as playing an instrument or riding a bicycle in a separate system. We now know this system as procedural memory. 

Therefore, as its name implies, this type of memory is responsible for performance. One of the most famous studies showing the separate memory systems was that of an epileptic. In fact, this epileptic has the name Henry Gustav Molaison. Back in the 1950s, doctors removed portions of his brain, including large parts of his hippocampus. 

But after the operation, doctors found intriguing things. Although the number of seizures dramatically decreased, Henry couldn’t form new memories. Sadly, his brain also erased many of his memories of the time before the operation. Therefore, in order to learn much more about the patient’s amnesia, the team of neuropsychologists created different tests. For example, in one, they asked him to trace a five-pointed star on a sheet of paper. 

But he could only look at it and his hand in a mirror. In other words, the patient utterly reversed the image. Luckily, Henry’s hand-eye coordination skills improved over the several days he performed this task. However, he never remembered performing it. This meant that he could develop new procedural memory but not declarative memories.

Procedural knowledge versus factual knowledge

So, is procedural knowledge fundamentally more stable than explicit knowledge? As it turns out, the former is much more resistant to both loss and trauma. In fact, even with a traumatic brain injury we hardly ever compromise the procedural memory system. Why? Believe it or not, the basal ganglia structure is solely responsible for processing nondeclarative memory.

Therefore, the brain center, below the cerebral cortex, relatively protects them.  However, there are many things unclear, beyond brain damage. For instance, why we can’t easily forget procedural memory contents. But we can easily forget the declarative ones. According to this innovative idea, different things occur. 

In the regions where the brain anchors movement patterns, it forms fewer nerve cells in adults. Therefore, without this neurogenesis, or continuous remodeling in those regions, it’s less likely for those memories to erase. One thing we know for sure. But we internalize simple sequences of movements. Even far in the past, we typically preserve them for a lifetime. Or as the saying goes, it’s “just like riding a bike”.

We hope this blog post helps you understand exactly why we never forget riding a bicycle. Most importantly, the brilliant science behind it. Are you ready to hop on and start cycling? What are you waiting for?

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  • Carlson, N.(1996). Fisiología de la conducta. Barcelona:Ariel.
  • Pinel, J. (2006). Biopsicología (6ª edición). Prentice Hall.