What is a Motor Engram?

Categories: All About Touch Typing, Typing Science, Typing Tips and Tricks |

“And,” you might be wondering, “what does it have to do with learning to type or improving spelling?” The answer lies in the connection between the mind and the body. You know that your mind controls the nerves and muscles that make your body move in specific ways – you can think that you want to pick up a book, and tell your arm to reach out and your hand to grasp the book. But when you think about it, do you really think about it? Most likely there’s no “thought” involved. You don’t consciously say, “Okay, now I’m going to extend my arm six inches forward and slightly to the right, lower it by 30 degrees, open the fingers of my hand, …” and so on. The act of “picking something up” has been encoded into a motor engram: a pattern of movement that is treated as a single unit. What’s more, the creation of this movement pattern is as much the work of the body as the brain.

Scientists have found that, just as repeated mental commands teach muscles to work in a certain way, repeated muscle motions translate back to mental stimulus. This means that when you do something over and over, it become automatic, and not something you have to think about. This “muscle memory” is what gives a ballet dancer the ability to perform complicated sequences of movements perfectly in time to the music in a performance. If the dancer had to stop and think “now I’m going to do this, now I’m going to do that” they would fall behind the music and the rhythm. In other words, your body can actually move faster than your mind, sometimes!

That’s what makes typing so important for people who want to improve their spelling. When you know how to spell a word, you’ll look at letter patterns, not individual letters. That means instead of spelling the word thoughtfulness as 14 separate letters, you’ll spell it as four clusters of letters: TH OUGHT FUL NESS. That’s because the TH combination is a common one, and there are many words that have the OUGHT pattern (drought, thought, bought, brought, etc.); NESS is a common suffix for adjectives. You might have to think briefly about the difference between FUL and FULL, but isn’t it easier to have only one spelling issue rather than many?

Here’s why learning to touch type improves spelling: the repeated muscle movements in specific patterns help embed those patterns in the brain and the body at the same time. When you have the right motor engram encoded in your mind, it means that the letter sequence OUGHT will be as automatic for you when spelling a word as when typing it. This is one reason why touch typing helps people with dyslexia. When dyslexia interferes with the way the eye processes letter patterns, typing allows a person to bypass the eyes and use the fingers instead. To remember a word’s spelling, simply imagine how your fingers move to type the word out, and you’ll be spelling it correctly.

Reference: J.A. Kleim, M.H. Monfils, E.J. Plautz. In search of the motor engram: motor map plasticity as a mechanism for encoding motor experience. Neuroscientist (October 2005)

Cross-posted at the Ultimate Spelling blog.

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