Little Bicycles and the Power of Memory

What is it about a little red bicycle? This one, parked at a yard sale in front of an aged, shingle-style house one weekend, predates my own vintage, and yet, it evokes memory. None specific to my world, but rather a general sensation of nostalgia.

I was reminded when I saw it of a question posed by Rob Penn in his cycling classic It’s All About the Bike. In his exposition of the neuroscience behind why people never forget how to ride a bicycle, Penn notes that certain neurons in our brains encode all our motor skills — biking, as well as walking, dancing or rowing. He wonders why the bicycle has become the benchmark. After all, “It’s like riding a bike,” is the phrase we most commonly use with reference to remembering a skill.

“It may be to do with the relationship between the bicycle and childhood,” Penn writes. “Most of us now learn to ride a bike early in life, ‘before the dark hour of reason grows.’ Perhaps, in youth, the cerebellum sends out stronger electrical signals, which are in turn encoded very carefully and stored in a secure place — the cerebral equivalent of a safe-deposit box in a steel vault beneath a bank in Zurich.”

Penn’s exploration focuses on the brain’s keen development of motor skills in youth. But the brain also has a place, in the hippocampus, where memory and spacial relationships are consolidated, including early experiences of a transcendent kind. The ones that die hard, even as others fade with age. Elemental memories of freedom — of the transformative moment when we escaped our driveways or city blocks to a new independence, untethered from parents. Perhaps they surface from there in an almost magnetic attraction to a little red bicycle.

Despite rust and ruin, innocence and possibility reside in a stalwart steel frame and dense rubber tires. That’s why I dismounted from my road bike and bought this little beauty for $20 straight up. No idea what I’ll do with it.

photo: velojoy

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