The True Difference Between Knowledge and Understanding

Destin Sandlin thought the task would be simple.

One of his friends had created something he called, “a backwards bike.” [1]

The backwards bike concept is very basic:

  1. When you move the handlebars to the left, the bike’s tire goes right.
  2. When you move the handlebars to the right, the bike’s tire goes left. 

Destin is about as smart as they come, and thought for sure that he’d be able to master the bike instantly.

Here’s what happened:

He couldn’t even get a solid pedal in! And Destin is not alone. He went around the country giving speeches about the backwards bike.

Here are some of the people trying to master it:



All of these people have knowledge about how the bike works. And the concept seems obvious...we just need to do everything we normally do on a bike, just the opposite way!

However…it’s not that easy—but why?

To put it in simple scientific terms, your memory of how to ride a bike is stored in a part of your brain known as "the cerebellum."

The cerebellum lies at the back of your brain and takes care of things like coordination, balance, and many more implicit functions that you don’t even think about. We would consider our cerebellum as our “intuitive brain.” [2]

*Note: the cerebellum does not include the limbic system or “primitive brain.”

Meanwhile your working memory and conscious movements are stored in a part of your brain known as "the cerebrum."

The cerebrum lies in the front of your brain and takes care of the movements that you are consciously aware of. It is the part of your brain that can express ideas and direct your actions. It is your “intellectual brain.” [3]

*Note: the cerebrum does include the pre-frontal cortex, where your willpower resides.

As I’m typing this sentence, my cerebrum is thinking about the words that I want to put on the page, and my cerebellum is directing my fingers to the locations of each key.

Here is a diagram of how the two communicate and what parts of the body they direct.


You can see the delicate balance between these two parts of your brain. And even if your cerebrum knows that you need to do things the opposite way, the messages to the cerebellum—which has years of bike-riding experience—are going to completely confusing.

By the same point, if someone moved a few letters on my keyboard, I would constantly make mistakes, even if I knew exactly where the new letters were!


So what would it take to change these pathways around? Would it be possible to learn how to ride the backwards bike?

Destin was determined to find out. So he practiced riding the backwards bike every day for months. Trying and failing over and over again—and embarrassing himself in the process.

Finally, after 8 month of slow progress, it finally clicked for Destin!

His cerebellum and cerebrum finally got onto the same page and could keep him moving forward on the backwards bike. His body now knew intuitively how to maintain balance and ride the bike backwards. 


Destin’s conclusion from this experiment was that knowledge does not equal understanding.

Just because you can know something intellectually, you still have intuitive thoughts, feelings, and emotions that are not going to change overnight.

Even if your intellectual brain knows that something is “bad” for you, that doesn’t mean that your intuitive brain, or your primitive brain (which I'll call the emotional brain for the purposes of this article) are going to be on the same page.

Even if you know intellectually that your fears of criticism or vulnerability aren’t justified, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to will yourself to overcome them 10 minutes before you give a public speech.

And even if read about the absolute best strategy for overcoming procrastination, sticking to a diet, or mastering your productivity, your whole brain will not truly understand its benefits unless you are willing to commit to implementing it for a long period of time. 


So how do you begin to rewire the parts of your brain to truly grasp a new idea, skill, or strategy?

The obvious answer would be, “repetition, repetition, repetition.” However, you have to think about which part of your brain you need to rewire.

For example, if Destin had simply repeated to himself the words, “Okay handlebars right, turn left. Handlebars left, turn right” over those 8 months, he wouldn’t have been able to ride the bike. 

If he spent his time researching the complex neuroscience of riding a backwards bike, that wouldn’t have helped him ride it either.

The only way he was going to learn was to get on the bike everyday and ride.

Similarly, if you are trying to overcome a fear of public speaking, it’s not going to do you much good to repeat the words, “there’s nothing to be afraid of, there’s nothing to be afraid of, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” everyday.

Nor is it going to do much good to spend all of your time studying, “how to give a perfect speech.”

You need to practice giving a speech in front of a real audience on a consistent basis until your emotional brain feels more comfortable being on stage and gets over its fear.

But, of course, there are instances when you want to practice every day with your intellectual brain.

If you want to design a new bike, for example, riding around on one every day isn’t going to do you much good. Now you are going to have to do things like research complex engineering and design.

So whatever your goal is, think about whether you're going to need intellect, intuition, or emotion in order to achieve it. Then design your practice to rewire this part of your brain, and get ready for the long journey from knowledge to understanding. 


Knowledge does not equal understanding. Just because you know that your fears are not warranted, that something is "bad for you," or that a strategy will lead to success, does not mean that you truly understand these things. 

In order to understand, you need to summon the willpower to literally re-wire your brain. You need to practice your public speaking, learn to enjoy things that are "good for you," and implement a new strategy in your everyday life. 

Then prepare yourself for the long journey from knowledge to understanding.