A Black Balloon Publication ©
March 14, 2012

Rewiring My Brain: The Dvorak Effect

By Jeffrey Zuckerman

Right now, I am typing in Dvorak, a keyboard layout that places all the vowels in the home row and purports to be more ergonomically friendly. I have been typing this way for a week, but my computer keyboard still feels foreign to me. I cannot believe my fingers are still not dancing across the keys.

I decided to start typing in Dvorak because I wanted to see if anything would change. So what did change?

First was my brain: I could feel the ache immediately. Norman Doidge describes competitive plasticity as a gerrymandering of cerebral territory, which perfectly explains why training my fingers to tap different keys for the same letters would run so palpably contrary to my brain’s heavily automated routines. In his book The Information: A History, A Theory, A FloodJames Gleick discusses how breaking words down into letters "forces the reader to detach information from meaning; to treat words strictly as character strings; to focus abstractly on the configuration of the word." I didn't have to be told twice. I struggled through the first half-hour of typing, and then stopped. My head felt like it might divide in two.

But an hour later, I came back and found myself distinctly remembering where the different letters went. Astonishing. My brain—I could feel my brain mastering this.

Then it was my writing: I had to simplify every part of it. If I was patient and tough, I might break ten words a minute. Gone were all the fillers—eh, nah, well—I’d typed during my Qwerty days. Gone were my slow-spooling, oft-Proustian digressions. Like Beckett switching from English to French, my sentences became plain.­ The words I chose changed, too. As a recent study has found that QWERTY typists prefer words typed with their right hand. I do prefer words that are easier to type; as David Mitchell mastered vocabularies to work around his stammering, so I found myself similarly picking words to suit my fingers and my mind.

“Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts,” declared Nietzsche in 1882, having learned to use a typewriter. I have moved in the opposite direction from Henry James, whose novels swelled in length and obliqueness once he started dictating to his secretary. He was able to postpone the work of editing; I, in my turn, must begin editing before I get a single word down.

I feel like I am writing more clearly now, more carefully and precisely. Typing in Dvorak has made my words strange to me, and so I look at each one closely like a small gemstone before setting it into my text. I won’t pretend that I’m a happier person for having learned to type at a rate far slower than my thoughts, but I know my words have become more exact and honest. My brain has actually been rewired.

Image credit: flickr.com/photos/julianrod