Rewiring a Skill

A video has gone viral in the last week showing a man learning to ride a backwards bike.

The bike has been adjusted so the handlebars work opposite of a normal bicycle. It took him months of practice for his brain to learn to ride it without falling, and then when he did, he found himself unable to ride a normal bike. The takeaway: he rewired his brain to use the new bike, but in the process was overwriting the original skill.

Obviously developing backwards biking is probably not a very useful skill to build long-term. But this idea has implications for anyone trying to get better.

We think of skill formation as an additive process: in mathematics, each skill is built on top of a previously honed one, like floors in a skyscraper.

But sometimes a skill needs to be developed replacing an older one – imagine demolishing one skyscraper to build a taller one. That’s what is happening in the video. We hit ceilings with certain skills – heights beyond which we cannot rise. To get any higher, we have to go through the long, tough process outlined in this video – rewrite and replace the current skill with a better one.

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