Two recent studies challenge our notions of working memory and how much a part it may play in activities central to our daily life. In one new study, researchers discovered that skilled typists could not identify the positions of many of the keys on the QWERTY keyboard (the one on your computer). “This demonstrates that we’re capable of doing extremely complicated things without knowing explicitly what we are doing,” Kristy Snyder, graduate student and first author, stated in a press release.

Gordon Logan, centennial professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, and a team of researchers, recruited 100 participants and asked them to complete a short typing test. Next, the researchers gave each participant a sketch of the QWERTY keyboard, minus all the letters, and asked them to write the letters in the correct location within 80 seconds. On average, the participants typed 72 words per minute — this amounts to moving their fingers to the correct keys six times per second — with 94 percent accuracy. By contrast, participants were only able to accurately place an average of 15 letters on a blank keyboard. The researchers theorized that typing had become an automatic behavior, similar to brushing your teeth or driving a car, and so they were not surprised by these results. However, they decided to test a theory of automatic learning, which is based on the theory that what may begin as a conscious process gradually becomes unconscious through repetition. This time, the researchers recruited 24 typists who they knew to be skilled on the QWERTY keyboard and asked them to learn to type on a Dvorak keyboard with an alternative placement of keys. After the participants developed reasonable proficiency on 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.

“We found no difference in explicit knowledge of the two keyboards, suggesting that typists know little about key locations on the keyboard, whether they are exposed to the keyboard for 2 hours or 12 years,” the authors wrote in the conclusion of their study. In an unrelated study published earlier this year, researchers began their own investigation of memory by asking a very simple question: If you take an elevator to your office, how well could you recall the relative layout of the buttons?

Up and Down

The researchers recruited 67 faculty, staff, and student participants from the UCLA Department of Psychology. The age range of participants was between 20 and 77, and more than half (57 percent) were female. The researchers approached people while in their office or laboratory and asked if they would complete a short survey. They were then handed a blank piece of paper and asked to draw the button panel located in the elevator. The researchers offered them some information, such as the panel included in the set of buttons in the elevator, and then they were asked to provide as many accurate details as possible, such as the label and location of each button. In each case, the experimenter noted where they started drawing (the “landmark” button) and collected the drawing after the participant had finished.

What did they discover? Of the 67 people tested, only 11 could accurately draw the button layout from memory, where accurate performance required only correct placement of the floor buttons ranging from A to 8 only. (The researchers did not include placement of service buttons when scoring a correct drawing.) In truth, not one participant accurately recalled the locations of all 16 (11 floor and five service) buttons.

“The present findings are broadly consistent with other work indicating that simply seeing or hearing information repeatedly does not necessarily enhance memory for it,” wrote the authors. “Remembering information requires more detailed semantic, analytical, and/or deeper levels of processing.”

Sources: Logan GD, Snyder KM, Ashitaka Y, et al. What skilled typists don’t know about the QWERTY keyboard. Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics. 2013.

Vendetti M, Castel AD, Holyoak KJ. The floor effect: Impoverished spatial memory for elevator buttons. Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics. 2013.