You Can Be Really Good at Certain Skills Without Having Any Idea How They Work

How well do you know the tools you use every day?

Computer keyboard
Image: Aon fi / Wikimedia Commons

When drafting an email, updating a status or cranking out a magnum opus, a touch typists' hands fly over the keyboard without a conscious thought. The tool, the QWERTY keyboard, has become an extension of the typist. But just as most typists couldn't explain how they make their hands work, they can't explain how they find the letters on the keyboard, either.

In a recent study, researchers found that even skilled typists know next to nothing about the layout of the standard QWERTY keyboard. When given a blank keyboard layout, people struggled to fill it in. Casey Johnston for Ars Technica:

The basic theory of “automatic learning,” according to Vanderbilt University, asserts that people learn actions for skill-based work consciously and store the details of why and how in their short-term memory. Eventually the why and how of a certain action fades, but the performative action remains.

However, in the case of typing, it appears that we don’t even store the action—that is, we have little to no “explicit knowledge” of the keyboard.

Conversely, as a person might learn while trying out alternative keyboards, knowing how something works doesn't necessarily help you operate it, either. Note with your conscious mind that E and A have switched to the right all you want; your fingers and your brain may just not get it.

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