Muscles remembering what my memory forgets

Last Friday night I dragged my DLSr and tripod out under the stars to take photographs of the lunar eclipse.

Out there, in the dark, I realised I'd forgotten how to take a long exposure photograph. I tried different menus and thought different memories until I eventually dragged the information from the depths of my brain and took a bunch of blurry photos of the moon. 

Afterwards, as I was falling asleep thinking about how it's getting harder and harder for me to remember things I realised that no matter what age I am, or how much I’ve done it lately, I always know how to touch type.

Muscle memory has been used synonymously with motor learning, which is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort.

I began to learn to type at school in third form - that's aged 13 years old here in New Zealand. We had big, old, manual typewriters that weighed a ton and took great effort to push the keys down hard enough to type a letter. Each typewriter also had a fabric bib tied around it covering the keys. Right from day one we never were allowed to look at the keys. We’d come to class, take our seats, slip our hands underneath the bib and find the home keys with our fingertips.

Our teacher, a nun with the Sisters of Mercy - a misnomer if ever there was one - drilled our fingers into submission and toned our muscle memory for the typewriter keyboard. Over the next two years I learned to touch type and by the time I left that school and moved to Taranaki to a new high school with bibles typewriters, I was the only person in the new class who could touch type.

After leaving school in 1980 to start my first job as a clerk in a draughting office, I didn't need to type in my life again until the mid-nineties when I discovered the Netscape browser icon on my husband's MacIntosh laptop.

So let's pause for a moment to recap:

  • 3 years of typing tuition resulting in the skill to touch type
  • 16 years of not typing
  • 1996 sat down at a keyboard and could touch type.

Now that's some amazing teaching and learning right there. That typing stuff stuck!

The Sister of Mercy who wouldn't let me use a typing eraser; who wouldn't let me look at my keys; who drilled and intimidated and scolded and insisted that we concentrated, taught my muscles and my memory to do something so well, that I could recall it 16 years after my last lesson to use it again with very little problem.

Back in those days girls like me took typing. I was the kind of girl who believed she didn't have an aptitude for language or mathematics, who had little hope of being smart enough for university, who would, if lucky, get a job in a typing pool and hoped she'd "marry well”. 

I didn't end up using my primary skill of touch typing when I applied for jobs after high school. I did end up using my self-taught skill of tracing and became a draughtsman instead.

Lunar eclipse on Friday 4 April 2015

Lunar eclipse on Friday 4 April 2015

So how did my brain remember how to type without looking at the keys when I can’t even remember how to leave the shutter open on my own camera when I need to? I suspect it was those drills. Hours upon hours of typing drills. I can still remember what some of them were:

  • okay I don't remember them after all
  • but my muscles in my brain and fingers
  • still know where the letters are on the keyboard.

Today I am grateful to that Sister of [Little] Mercy who drilled my muscles until they would never forget how to tap on a keyboard without looking at my fingers. It turned out to be the Number One most useful skill to learn in the 1970s for the future that turns out to depend so heavily on the QWERTY keyboard input device.

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