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input devices mental exercises reflections

This Is Your Brain on Dvorak

Kinesis Contoured KeyboardSince reorganizing my office, I’ve started using my Kinesis keyboard again. Despite its somewhat peculiar appearance, it’s an extremely well-crafted device. It has a satisfying tactile response approaching the classic IBM keyboard (though without the clickity-clickity), and the concavity gives each key a different shape and feel. It also puts six keys (including Control, Alt, Backspace and Delete) under each thumb, a digit typically consigned to whapping the space bar. Its only significant fault is the lousy, chiclet-style function keys.

The last time I used the Kinesis heavily was when I was learning the Dvorak keyboard layout. I’ve made several runs at it, and the last time I pushed through to start achieving some reasonable (though hardly fast) speed. Dvorak is not without its controversies, but even without the grandiose claims it’s been a very interesting mental exercise. The Kinesis is switchable between QWERTY and Dvorak layouts by hitting a combination of keys. I’d left the keyboard set to QWERTY, and hadn’t thought much more about it for six months.

When I started writing an email, I noticed that I was stumbling, hitting lots of wrong keys. Much to my surprise, my motor memory was trying to type Dvorak. When I switched the keyboard over, I found that I could hit a steady (if somewhat slow) pace.

Switching back and forth between the two layouts is a curious mental exercise . . . when I type a sentence, I typically don’t think at all about the individual letters, or even the mechanics of typing; the words just seem to appear on the screen. Immediately after switching modes, there’s an internal tension, with two competing pathways trying to activate. It’s an almost disconnected, ghostly experience to feel and watch my hands flicking over the keys without conscious intervention.

Despite my increased fluency with Dvorak, I’m still painfully slow compared to my normal speeds. This makes it very hard to persevere for long periods of time . . . it prevents achieving a state of flow, of union with what is happening on the screen of the computer. Even so, it is fascinating to watch the process of the brain rewiring itself under the pressure of new demands.

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