Why is it so hard to draw a bike from memory? The Magnet

You can't trust what you see in your head

(Before reading further, please draw a simple bicycle without looking at a reference image.)

Ten years ago, Andrew Neher invited me to draw a bike from memory for his Bike Drawings website. I asked my wife and daughters to participate, too. We sat at the kitchen table and spent about 10 minutes drawing what we remembered a bike to look like. Everyone was pretty confident that their drawing was accurate.

Take a look at them here.

As you can see, most of the drawings included the right parts — wheels, spokes, saddle, pedals, frame, crank, gears, handlebar, chain — but they were jumbled together in ways that would make the bike inoperable. When we compared our sketches to a photo of a real bike, we realized we didn’t know how bikes work.

We aren’t the only ones who have a hard time drawing memory bikes. Take a look at artist/designer Gianluca Gimini’s Velocipedia project. He asked friends to draw bikes from memory and created realistic 3D renderings of their sketches.

Why is it hard to draw things we are familiar with? About 15 years ago, psychologist Rebecca Lawson ran an experiment to find out. She gave volunteers a simple, partially completed drawing of a bicycle and asked them to complete it. Most of the volunteers fared as poorly as my family did. On her website, Lawson offered her thoughts on the results and why it’s probably a good thing we’re bad at drawing stuff like bikes:

It seems that many people have virtually no understanding of how bicycles work. This is despite bicycles being highly familiar and most people having learnt how to ride one. Most people know that turning the pedals drives one or both of the bicycle wheels forward, but they probably understand little more than this. As far as cognitive psychology is concerned, though, the main finding of interest is how sketchy and shallow most people's understanding of bicycles is.

[Yale psychologist ] Frank Keil argues that this minimal, superficial understanding is actually beneficial. It lets us efficiently interpret the world and make accurate, causal predictions without overburdening the limited processing and storage resources of our brain. We will almost always be able to just look at a bicycle whenever we need to know how it works. Why, then, should we bother trying to learn this information before we need it and then having the problem of needing to store this understanding in our limited-capacity memory system?

Keil’s comment makes sense to me. Most of us don’t need to know what a bike looks like or even how one works. Unless you’re a bike builder or a bike repairer, you only need to know how to recognize a bike and how to ride one. That also goes for other simple common devices with a visible mechanism, like scissors or mousetraps.

Researcher Andy Earle says the bicycle memory test is an example of the “illusion of explanatory depth,” the tendency for people to overestimate their understanding of something, which is followed by the realization of their ignorance when asked to explain how it works. Earle cited a study that looked at how the illusion of explanatory depth affected people’s political beliefs:

[P]articipants were asked for opinions on political issues like single-payer healthcare or a cap-and-trade system for limiting emissions. They also rated their understanding of each issue. Then, all were asked to explain the issues in depth. Afterward, people consistently downgraded their estimates of their own understanding and became more moderate in their views.

Others in the same study who were asked to defend their position instead of explaining the issue did not demonstrate this effect.

Earle concludes with advice on how to use this phenomenon to have a more interesting conversation with someone who holds strong opinions:

[N]ext time someone is spouting off her opinion about something, a better approach than directly challenging her might be to ask, “how does that work exactly?” She will likely adopt a more moderate stance as she tries to explain it.

Good advice!

Another category of things that are hard to draw is famous cartoon characters. Bad Toon Rising is a gallery of “drawings of well-known cartoon characters produced by amateur artists entirely from memory and without any reference materials whatsoever.” I tried Pink Panther. I thought I knew what Pink Panther looked like, but my drawing bears minimal resemblance to the real Pink Panther:

Pink Panther looks amused by my attempt to draw it.

Not being able to draw a cartoon character doesn’t detract from the ability to enjoy the cartoon. You just have to be able to recognize the character, which is a lot easier than recreating it.

I asked Rob Walker, author of The Art of Noticing (and the superb newsletter of the same name), why we fail so miserably at memory drawings and if there was any benefit to becoming better at observing things so we can produce better memory drawings. He said:

I would actually turn this around a bit to say memory drawings are a good exercise because they help us recognize that we can all get better at observing things. What this all reminds me of is an anecdote that designer George Nelson tells in his book How To See. Nelson was a very keen observer of the world. But even he discovered that when he would try to recall specifics of a room in his own house — and discovered that he “scored very badly.” Which only caused him to try harder to be aware of his surroundings.

In The Art of Noticing I have a bit, kind of a little informal game, inspired by this — “Test Yourself,” basically pretty similar to memory drawing: Look at some stationary thing (a building, let’s say), then turn away and write down every detail about it you can recall. Then look back and see how you did. So as with memory drawings, the hope is that this kind of exercise makes you a better observer, more tuned into to the crucial details. And if nothing else, I think it makes you aware of the fact that you may be missing or misremembering more than you realize, which is an important lesson in itself. (And, I suspect, just knowing it makes you a better noticer!)

By the way, there are some instances in which you need to know what something looks like to be able to use it. One example is an analog clock face. That’s why drawing a clock from memory is a test for cognitive impairment:

By the way, how did you do with your bicycle drawing? Email it to me at markfrauenfelder@gmail.com and I will run it in a future issue.


The Magnet is written and produced by Mark Frauenfelder and edited by Carla Sinclair.