IT WAS once the calling card of expeditious secretaries capable of turning out letters by the dozen with a flurry of key strokes on their Remingtons and Olivettis.
But the age-old skill of touch typing is no longer the preserve of those schooled in the ways of Pitman, according to research which shows modern technology is allowing people to communicate faster than ever before.
The ubiquity of smartphones, tablets and laptops has turned us into a nation of touch typists, with the average person able to type as many as 72 words a minute, a study by US and Japanese universities has found.
The advent of touch screen technology means that ordinary mobile phone users can hit six keys a second, with an accuracy rate of 94 per cent.
A team of cognitive psychologists from Vanderbilt University, in Tennessee, and Kobe University, in Japan, made the discovery while conducting research into the field of automatism, the ability to perform actions without conscious thought or intention.
The researchers said that modern technology allowed people to carry out “extremely complicated” tasks without knowing exactly what it was they were doing. Indeed, most were able to type briskly, despite being unable to locate where certain letters are located on a keyboard.
In a short typing test, 100 students were shown a blank keyboard with the traditional Qwerty layout and given 80 seconds to write the letters in the correct location.
On average, they typed 72 words per minute with 94 per cent accuracy, but could only place an average of 15 letters on a keyboard that was blank. Dr Kristy Snyder, a cognition and cognitive neuroscience researcher at Vanderbilt, said: “When you are typing away at your computer, you don’t know what your fingers do. This demonstrates that we’re capable of doing extremely complicated things without knowing explicitly what we are doing.”
For more than a century, scientists have recognised the existence of automatic behaviours of this type, such as driving a car and factory assembly-line work.
Scientists had assumed that typing also fell into this category, but had not tested it. What surprised them was evidence that conflicts with the basic theory of automatic learning which maintains that it starts out as a conscious process and gradually becomes unconscious with repetition. According to the widely held theory, as you repeat the task, it becomes increasingly automatic.
This allows you to think about other things while you performing the task but your conscious recollection of the details gradually fades away.
But the researchers were surprised when they found evidence that the typists never appear to memorise the key positions, not even when they are first learning to type.
Evidence for this conclusion came from another experiment included in the study, published in the journal Attention, Perception & Psychophysics.
The researchers recruited 24 typists who were skilled on the Qwerty keyboard and had them learn to type on a Dvorak keyboard, which places keys in different locations. On average, they could locate only 17 letters correctly, comparable to participants’ performance with the Qwerty keyboard.