Brain Autopilot Typing
December 6, 2013

Is Your Brain On Autopilot When You Type?

[ Watch the Video: Can You Type On Autopilot? ]

Bryan P. Carpender for - Your Universe Online

As I type this, my brain is not really aware of what my fingers are doing. At least that’s what a new study says.

Conducted by a team of cognitive psychologists from Vanderbilt and Kobe universities, this new study concludes that we are able to automatically perform complex activities without necessarily being mindful of the mechanics involved.

The study focused on typing and found that although someone may be a skilled typist, they have difficulty identifying the actual positions of many of the keys on a QWERTY keyboard. Further, it appears that novice typists often don’t even bother to learn the key locations in the first place.

“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 first author of the study, which was conducted under the supervision of Gordon Logan, Centennial Professor of Psychology.

For their study, the researchers recruited a pool of 100 research subjects composed of both university students and members of the surrounding community. The experiment consisted of two tasks.

First, they completed a short typing test to measure speed and accuracy. On average, they typed 72 words per minute, moving their fingers to the correct keys six times per second with 94 percent accuracy.

[ Watch The Video: How Fingers Automatically Type ]

For the second task, they were shown a blank QWERTY keyboard and were given 80 seconds to assign the letters to their correct key location. This proved more difficult for test subjects; on average, they could only place 15 letters correctly on the blank keyboard – a stark contrast to their accuracy in the typing test.

It wasn’t much of a surprise that they had struggled to consciously identify the specific key positions. What’s the reason behind it? Well, for more than a century, scientists have attributed this type of result to automatism, which is the ability of the brain to perform actions without conscious thought or intention.

It may sound like just another theory, but it’s a theory that has been proven over and over again. In fact, you probably demonstrated it today simply by tying your shoelaces. Or making your coffee. Think about how you go about your daily routine. Do you ride a bike or drive a car? If you answered 'yes' to any of those questions, you can thank automatism for playing a part in getting you where you need to go.

The basic theory of automatic learning suggests that an action starts out as a conscious process and with repetition, that process becomes unconscious.

Primarily developed by studying the process by which people learn to play chess, the common theory is that when a person performs a new task for the first time, they are conscious of every action and every step, storing those details in their working memory. Then as they repeat the task over time, their awareness of the details gradually fades and the task becomes more automatic. (It’s sort of like a mental autopilot, allowing your brain to focus on other things while you execute the task.)

Surprisingly, the researchers found that their typing subjects seemingly never memorized the key positions – not even when they were initially 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.

To support this conclusion, the team performed another experiment in which the researchers recruited 24 typists who were skilled on the QWERTY keyboard. The subjects then had to learn to type on a Dvorak keyboard, which places keys in different locations. Once they demonstrated a reasonable proficiency with the alternative keyboard, they were asked to identify the placement of the keys on a blank Dvorak keyboard. On average, they could locate only 17 letters correctly, comparable to participants’ performance with the QWERTY keyboard.

One reason for the lack of specific knowledge of the keyboard is they way students learn how to use computers and keyboards. The mandatory typing classes that used to be taught in schools have now been rendered more or less obsolete. Today, most children learn how to work a keyboard at a very young age and in an informal manner, thanks to the ubiquity of computers, smartphones and other hand-held electronic devices.

“When I was a boy, you learned to type by taking a typing class and one of the first assignments was to memorize the keyboard,” Logan recalled.

Those were the days.