Dvorak and Psychological Learning States

I'm teaching myself the Dvorak keyboard layout. If you don't know, Dvorak is an optimized layout for typing that puts the most commonly used keys in the home row with the least used keys near the weaker fingers, and separates vowels from consonants so that typing alternates between hands instead of having one hand do more work than the other.

This is Antonin Dvorak. Not the guy I'm talking about.

The task of learning a whole new set of meanings on a familiar interface is challenging. At this early stage, it takes about 30 minutes before my focus is spent and I start reverting to QWERTY on accident or just begin typing randomly. What was surprising to me is that learning the individual letters is not difficult but chaining digraphs (two letters put together) fluently is very difficult, and takes just as much practice as does drilling individual letter placement.

Some people might ask, why bother? Is it really worth it? I say, yes, for many reasons. I use a keyboard for hours per day and type at around 110 words per minute. I've heard Dvorak users on average get around a 40% increase in their typing speed as well as increased accuracy. The biggest draw for me, though, is that Dvorak reduces stress on the fingers and wrist because you don't need to pick up or move around your hands nearly as often. Those reasons, though, are the tangible ones. To me, there are plenty of intangible reasons to learn Dvorak, too.

I strongly believe that learning things which fundamentally expand the way you think about common activities you take for granted in one of the best creative experiences you can have. By exploding what I know about typing, I can, if only for a little while, change the way that I think about it and all the expert’s assumptions I have around it. This stretches the conceptual space I have around the topic and invites new questions, like:

  • If I learn Dvorak, will I lose QWERTY? Can I compartmentalize the two?
  • If I learn Dvorak, is it like learning languages? Would I be able to learn a new layout more easily? Could I become… multitypal?
  • Why is learning digraphs so hard? Did I learn all the QWERTY digraphs without realizing it?
  • How much of typing involves connecting common digraphs versus actually mentally connecting letters?
  • What is the threshold of mastery for Dvorak? Will I suddenly explode in proficiency after mastering a certain number of letters? Digraphs? How many hours/words will it take?

This sort of questioning is interesting, but the benefit isn’t in the content. I find the process of asking the questions—and forcing myself into a place where I ask questions—to be a mechanism for becoming more mentally elastic. In the day-to-day, it’s easy to fall into mental and psychological ruts that prevents fresh, combinatorial thinking. I’m definitely not a neurologist, but my instinct tells me that I am much more likely to think creatively when I’m forcing myself to learn new things and think like a beginner.

Hippocampus II, Greg A. Dunn. 42" x 42", enamel on composition gold and aluminum

There are specific psychological states that are good for learning. I like exploring psychological states; if you feel closely, they have a tactile sensation to them. We use words to describe them, but words are often only dim approximations of the physical-mental sensation that accompanies moods and states. Another reason to force myself to learn something difficult like Dvorak (or, analogously, a different type of stringed instrument) is that in order to learn it effectively, I have to put myself in a mental state of the beginner. It feels like a soft but powerful sense of focus and a very slight pressure at a spot between my temples and eyes.

I call this my “learning state”. Psychologically, I’ve found I am able to go there by forcing myself to forget my assumptions about a thing. QWERTY? Let it go. Never heard of it. These keys are brand new to me and I don’t know anything about them. If I don’t take care to do this, then knowledge will flood in and I’ll let muscle memory take over. I have to slow down and carefully process each keystroke, continuously doing this until I can do it faster and faster. I have to take care to do this correctly, though, otherwise my mind will easily inject previous knowledge of QWERTY into my Dvorak headspace, and I start making mistakes. Because the QWERTY knowledge is so familiar, it is much easier to stick and that much harder to erase once it’s entered the mental compartmentalization I reserve for Dvorak.

This is a theme that recurs a lot in various sayings such as “perfect practice makes perfect.” Tae Kwon Do instructors have told me that if you learn a kick incorrectly, you have to kick correctly 1,000 times to unlearn it. Bruce Lee has the saying, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks, but the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” In my experience, there are small instants in the learning process, where if you are going slowly enough, you can feel your brain learn. Tactile learning involving athletics, instruments, or tools causes particularly strong sensations in this area. I enjoy these moments a lot, because getting there means that you are paying close attention to your learning process and what’s happening. By virtue of your actions there, you’re practicing a type of intense observation that’s tuned to observing minutiae elsewhere. Ultimately, you are stretching yourself—and watching yourself stretch yourself.