The Athlete's Way

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The Mysterious Neuroscience of Learning Automatic Skills

How does the brain master complex skills that we do without thinking about them?

Can you type "The quick red fox jumped over the lazy brown dog” without looking at the keyboard? A new study conducted by a team of cognitive psychologists at Vanderbilt and Kobe universities has found that most skilled typists can only identify about half of the positions of letter keys on the standard QWERTY keyboard.

Skilled typists rely on implicit muscle memory that associates the location of a letter on the keyboard without conscious knowledge of where the letters are actually located. It's a fascinating paradox that although typing may seem cerebral, skilled typists do not rely on executive functions to type.

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QWERTY is the most common modern-day keyboard layout for typing English. The name comes from the first six keys appearing on the top left letter row of the keyboard and read from left to right. The QWERTY design has been the standard keyboard layout since 1873. Like most people in this new study, I had no idea those 6 letters appeared in that order on the top row of my keyboard until researching this blog post.

I learned “touch typing" when I was in high school and don't look at the keys when I'm typing. Do you hunt-and-peck or touch type? A touch typist knows the location on the keyboard through muscle memory and does not look at the keyboard when typing. According to this new study, because touch typists don’t use sight to find the keys their actual knowledge of key locations is incomplete and inaccurate. Interestingly, very few people ever learn key locations in the first place but learn their location intuitively through trial and error which becomes subconsciously embedded in muscle memory.

“Automatism” and Implicit Learning

The fact that the typists did so poorly at identifying the position of specific keys didn’t come as a surprise to the researchers. For more than a century, scientists have recognized the existence of “automatism,” which is the ability to perform complicated actions without conscious thought or intention. Automatic behaviors of this type are common daily activities and range from typing to tying shoelaces, to serving a tennis ball, riding a bicycle, driving a car etc.

Please take 2-minutes to watch this video which explains how the cerebellum learns skills automatically without thinking about them. This frees up the cerebrum to consciously think about other things instead of just the task at hand. If the cerebellum and cerebrum are not working harmoniously people can experience a wide range of learning disabilities.

Theories of skilled performance and automaticity generally associate implicit knowledge with skilled performance and explicit knowledge with novice performance. Implicit learning requires the person learning to actually perform and practice a skill to master it. On the other hand, explicit learning—which is also called ‘declarative’ memory—represents knowledge that you could memorize or declare like giving someone instructions or reciting a poem.

For this study on typing and implicit learning the researchers recruited 100 university students and members from the surrounding community to participate in an experiment. The participants completed a short typing test. Then, they were shown a blank QWERTY keyboard and given 80 seconds to write the letters in the correct location.

On average, people typed 72 words per minute, moving their fingers to the correct keys six times per second with 94 percent accuracy. By contrast, they could accurately place an average of only 15 letters on a blank keyboard. “This demonstrates that we’re capable of doing extremely complicated things without knowing explicitly what we are doing,” said Vanderbilt University graduate student Kristy Snyder, the lead author of the study, which was conducted under the supervision of Centennial Professor of Psychology Gordon Logan.

The Mystery of Knowing Without Knowing

Given the prevalence of this “use it or lose it” explanation, the researchers were surprised when they found evidence that most typists never memorize the key positions, not even when they are first learning to type. “It appears that not only don’t we know much about what we are doing, but we can’t know it because we don’t consciously learn how to do it in the first place,” said Logan.

Most surprising to the researchers was the discovery that typing does not start out as a conscious process that gradually becomes unconscious and implicit with repetition. Typing appears to be an automatic type of implicit learning process from the beginning. The most widely held theory of automatic learning was primarily developed by studying how people learn to play chess which requires more conscious thought for a rookie.

When you learn to play chess and perform a move for the first time, you are conscious of the actions because chess is more explicit than typing at the beginning. As you play more chess, the moves can become more automatic and your awareness of the details gradually fades away which allows you to trust your gut more and also focus on strategy instead of just the logistics of a move.

Conclusion: Skilled Typing Facilitates Superfluid Expression

Kurt Vonnegut's typewriter.

Some writers, like Joyce Carol Oates, are well known for writing in longhand and using yellow legal pads. Others, like Kurt Vonnegut, prefer an old fashioned typewriter and paper instead of Microsoft word. Vonnegut insisted on the Smith-Corona 2200 typewriter. Typing is a fascinating blend of the explicit and implicit skillsets because you are transcribing conscious, explicit ideas through the implicit and non-thinking movement of your fingertips.

I have a hunch that because typing is ambidextrous it engages all four hemispheres of the brain both implicitly and explicitly. This seamless merging of the explicit and implicit allows the writing process to become superfluid if you are a skilled typist.

Also, when you are writing with your left or right hand on paper you are only engaging one hemisphere of the cerebellum which could influence the cognitive process of expressing explicit ideas through the written word. Researchers from a wide range of disciplines are currently exploring the many ways that explicit and implicit learning systems work together and alone to create optimal brain function. 

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blogs:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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