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Of colour schemes and cognitive dissonance

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Comment My mother trained as a shorthand-typist back in the early 1940s. As a lad, I was always impressed by her typing. With one of those old fashioned Imperial typewriters, she could bash out around 60 or 70 words a minute, which wasn't bad considering the mechanical inertia built into something that weighed as much as a Chieftain tank.

Becoming a proficient shorthand-typist included the ability to type rapidly without looking at the keyboard - in those days, the rather barbaric training programme included the use of a metal shield that was bolted to the typewriter above the keyboard, meaning you had to learn to type without looking at the keys.

Over the years, I've gradually learned to touch type, though thankfully without the use of a shield. What's especially fascinating is that, on a conscious level, I don't actually know where those keys are located.

Occasionally, you hear a Who wants to be a Millionaire question such as "are the X and C keys adjacent to each other on a computer keyboard?" My fingers know the answer, but my brain doesn't. Or, to be more precise (there's not much grey matter in fingers!), I don't consciously know the answer, but subconsciously I do.

I got to thinking about this the other day when using TextMate on my Mac. TextMate is a programmer's editor that's capable of devouring very large files such as operating system disassemblies and the like. It's similar (though arguably not as polished) as Visual SlickEdit which I use on the PC. I’ve been using both for quite some time, particularly SlickEdit, which I’ve configured to use the same keystrokes as Underware’s Brief editor, of fond memory.

A couple of weeks ago, I changed TextMate's colour scheme. Although I liked the new decor, (a subtle melange of understated greens and yellows) my fingers didn't. I suddenly found that they'd developed a mind of their own. Every time I went to save or open a file, highlight a row, delete a selection, or whatever, something odd happened. Eventually, I realised that I was subconsciously using the old Brief keystrokes I'm used to with SlickEdit on Windows.

Why had my fingers suddenly switched into Brief/SlickEdit mode? Yes, you've guessed, the colour scheme I was now using on TextMate looked suspiciously similar to the colours I was using with SlickEdit. Even though – consciously – I knew I was using TextMate, I was getting visual cues from the screen which convinced part of my brain I was using SlickEdit. At least, that's my theory!

Wikipedia describes cognitive dissonance (here) as "the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behaviour that conflicts with one's beliefs". I guess typing SlickEdit commands into TextMate pretty much covers it.

Naturally, after reverting to the previous colour scheme (or at least, one much different from SlickEdit) normal service was restored. Have others had similar experiences, or am I crazy? Answers on a postcard to the usual address... ®

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