Apple and the 2016 MacBook Pro are Working to Change Your Brain, and it’s Uncomfortable

What’s Up

As an Apple fan, I appreciate the thoughtfulness that Apple puts into integrating their hardware and software so that it gradually moves users in new directions (whether they like it or not).  Psychologically, this is a good move because there’s only so much change that people are willing to tolerate before they avoid the situation.  Well this year, Apple has pushed the envelope and it’s done it by reducing the ports and really changing up the keyboards.  Now ports have a relatively concrete solution (i.e., adapters), so resolving this issue for people is relatively easy, albeit annoying.  The keyboard, on the otherhand, requires that all Apple users make a significant neurological change if they’re to use the keyboard in the most efficient and quietest way possible.  Now I’m not talking about the Touch Bar, I’m talking about the actual keyboard and the keys.  I have to admit, the new keyboard has been driving me friggin’ crazy (crazy!!) because I’m used to the old 2011 MacBook Pro 15″ keyboard, which I love so much more at the moment.  Now, I believe that Apple is moving its users toward a keyless keyboard…like a touch screen or something close to it.  In the past, Apple has done well to move people down the road toward long-term improvement but they might want to keep in mind that they change needs to be paced out a little bit better.  If they are, in fact, going to the keyless keyboard then I think that people may need some more time…but we’ll see, right?  Regardless, if the new keyboard has been frustrating for you and you’re curious about why and what you can do about it, hang in there.

Keyboard Differences Compared

As many others have described, the old keys were smaller, taller and required more pressure and stability in order for them to be successfully pressed and registered with the computer’s circuitry.  What’s also a massive, though technically small, difference is that the total depth of the keyboard is different.  From the measurements that I’ve taken, the new keyboard is about 1/4″ shorter in depth.  Meaning, we lost about 1/4″ when you measure from the very front of the space bar to the very back of the last row (e.g., any number key).  Here are a couple of photoscomparing the keyboards of the old 2011 MacBook Pro and the new 2016 MacBook Pro w/ Touch Bar, and you can see there’s a small difference.  At first I wasn’t sure if it was my eyes were messing with me but sure enough, they are different…and this explains why I am constantly making a lot of small errors!

As other authors have noted, the new keys have a very small (around 1mm) distance to travel from the start of the finger press to the completion of it so that it registers with the computer’s circuitry.  This is a very huge difference compared the the previous generations keyboards.  Also, the keys are bigger and more stable, which means that your brain doesn’t have to be as focused on hitting the keys just right.  Instead, there’s a little more space in the keys so that everything is a little more forgiving.  A basic comparison of the two keyboards (the 2016 vs. the 2011) gives me the impression that the keys on the 2016 MBP are barely there.  Good for design, reduced weight and use of space, but not so good for your long-standing typing habits that our brain and our bodies are used to.

What’s Involved When You Type

Man, there’s quite a bit!!  I could totally geek out by breaking down all of the structures, but I won’t do that to you.  So let’s keep things relatively basic.  First, there are multiple areas of your brain that are used for typing.  The major areas are those that govern motor or physical movement (Parietal Lobe), memory and habit (Hippocampus, Basil Ganglia, Temporal Lobes, etc.), visual information and feedback (Parietal and Occipital Lobes), and language (the whole friggin left half of your brain).  What’s more is that these structures need to connect to all of the muscles, tendons and nerve endings in your hands, fingers and arms in order to work properly.  These connections are made possible by many crazy long sequences of nerves that go from your brain, into your spine and then they travel throughout your body.  So when you’re forced to change a habit like typing on a new kind of keyboard, you’re changing all of these structures inside of you even though you can’t see it happen.  I have to admit, it’s all so nuts but so cool!  And this is just about typing!

So, when you go to type something right now, all of the nerves in your brain and body fire in a specific sequence and this makes it relatively easy to do.  This is because the nerves and muscles have had a lot of time to adapt to all of the practice that you’ve done.  The way that your typing speed increased was the result of your brain, nerves and body working together to alter all of the small structures underneath your skin…and this is what led to you being able to type faster.  Now we don’t see any of this taking place and we don’t even know that it’s going on, but it’s important that we know it.  When you first learned to type it wasn’t on this new Apple keyboard and the only reason that the keyboard is to blame for how funky this feels is because our biology can’t adapt quick enough.  This means that even the smallest of changes can mess with the complex neurological and muscular system that is called, “your ability to type.”  My body’s reaction to Apple’s change from the 2011 MBP to the 2016 MBP has been strong, and there have been times that I want to destroy my new MBP because I’m so frustrated with my body taking so long to adapt to the new keyboard!

As a side note, I’d like to acknowledge that Apple has been probably tried to be smart about deciding when it was going to force certain changes on us.  This is a tough balancing act and I don’t envy them in trying to determine how much to push the consumer while trying to balance strong stock prices and investor confidence.  That just seems like an impossible formula.  So how do you pump out quality products that push the boundaries of tech while also working with humanities biggest weakness: adapting to change.  It’s a tough call but let’s stay focused on the topic at hand and save that for another blog post.

Why Learning Something New Can Be Biologically Uncomfortable

Basic Brain Stuff:  When we’re under 25 years old, it’s easier for us to change because our metabolism is higher (which promotes quicker growth and protein synthesis which is needed for neurological changes) and our brain has a greater influx of newly created brain cells or neurons.  Beyond 25, we continue to get some new neurons but it’s like a trickle-charge because it’s happening at a really slow rate.  This means that older adults depend more upon existing neurons to rewire themselves (aka, neuroplasticity) than on new cells jumping in to create new pathways and connections.  Generally speaking, rewiring takes more time, practice and energy…and this can be uncomfortable and frustrating.  At 40 years old, I’m pretty frustrated by this new keyboard because all of the changes have slowed me down, increased the number of typing errors and now I have to be stupid deliberate about typing…and I feel like I’m having to learn this all over again.  However, I know that I need to force myself to practice because my neurons need some time to rewire themselves.  The worst thing that I could do is throw my arms up in the air and return my new MBP and buy some old machine.  But we all know this is the coward’s way out…and what way to better solidify my old-man stature by refusing to adapt to change, right!?  Anyway, I know I have to be patient and to rethink how I press each key with each finger.  This is just how it’s going to be for a bit.  If I do this, I’ll be able to be more precise when I type and not be so damn loud on this new keyboard.  So far (it’s been a touch over a week since I’ve had the new machine), my brain and muscles have adjusted a little bit but the old habit is pretty strong because I can feel that my fingers want to pound on the keyboard with more force.  The fact that I’m having to hold back and to change this brings about a weird feeling in my hands…which I find massively annoying…and fascinating at the same time.

Proximity of Change:  Another reason that this is so annoying is that the difference between how I used to type on the old keyboard and what I need to do now is close I can easily imagine the new way of doing it.  Even though I can imagine typing in this new, quiet and softer way, my biology hasn’t caught up.  Emotionally, though I’m not thinking about it in this way, this is the most frustrating part of the entire thing.  So even though I can imagine the change and am aware of how it feels so close to what I normally do, I have to slow down and be patient with the number of errors that I make.  Also, that 1/4″ of inch difference in the keys is really messing with my precision.  Now I have to track my fingers whereas before, I just typed as I always had.  Such a simple thing is bringing up such strong reactions.  It makes me think of people who have suffered a stroke or nerve damage that has limited their mobility.  If I’m so frustrated about this, I can’t imagine the difficulty that these individuals experience as they try to recover their mobility.  I have a new found empathy for them, though it’s based on something that’s ultimately pretty ridiculous by comparison, and my heart goes out to these people.  The one thing that’s helped me progress through this frustating time is maintaining an awareness of what comes up emotionally.  As I’ve observed myself, it’s important to keep things in perspective so we don’t get too pissed off and start blaming the keyboard for our failures (though I’ve wanted to break my new laptop during some moments of frustration).

Why You Should Strategically and Purposefully Change Your Habits

While it’s uncomfortable to deal with this change that’s been forced upon us, it’s good that we have to focus on how we can deliberately create a new habit or skill in the most effective way.  Ultimately, I’m driven by laziness and so I put a lot of effort into creating habits that are as efficient as possible.  This way, the efficient habit will lessen the potential problems and work that I have to deal with later on.  In order to reduce this work down the road, I need to really think about what I’m going to do.  In this way, I’m putting more effort upfront so that I can consider the impact that my actions and inactions may have on others, my environment and my future goals.  I know that this is just about typing but I’d encourage you to adopt a similar approach in your own life so that you can reep the benefits of doing things really well (for the short-term and long-term) and with the least amount of energy.

Now, if we don’t take care to analyze the situation and just haphazardly adjust to the new keyboard, then we’re likely to develop a new habit that’s not optimal.  Once we establish this new habit we’ll be less likely to enhance it later on because we’ll be able to get by even though it’s sloppy.  Unfortunately, I think many people are probably going to type very loudly on this new keyboard, which will annoy the shit out of a lot of people, and this is because they didn’t know how to approach the development of a new habit.  The problem with habits is that we humans are pretty resistant to change and we tend not to make an effort to improve something when it’s small and when we don’t believe that it really matters.  While this is true for the majority of us, there are many people who are exceptions.  In this current keyboard situation, this is likely to occur because I doubt many people are going to think to themselves, “Hmm, I need to type differently.  How can I do this so that I only have to relearn this once?  Also, I can tell this is going to annoy the hell out of a lot of people so how do I go about typing quietly?”  Yeah, most of us are probably not going to be this deliberate about the whole thing.  So, this means that we’re going to have a lot of people who are going to type very loudly with the new Apple keyboard because they didn’t go through the painful week or two that it takes to deliberately adjust in an ideal way.  So I’m alreay thankful for my noise cancelling headphones!

Ways to Help the Change Happen Quicker and With Less Discomfort

  1. Slow Down.  Remind yourself throughout the day, everyday, that you’re going to type a lot slower than you used to because your mind and body has to make a lot of small adjustments in order to regain the typing precision that you once had.  The keys have all moved and it’s going to take a little bit before you instinctually feel just the right level of softness and pressure that you need to use on the keys.
  2.  Relax. As you remind yourself of the above, let yourself relax and give yourself more time to complete any emails, papers, etc..  Your enemy in this situation in impatience.  And it’s good to practice becoming more patient with yourself, even though it’s really friggin’ hard to do.
  3. Practice.  Try to type as much as possible so that you get in a ton of practice.  This will help things move along and your neurons and muscles will change at a quicker rate.
  4. Eat Protein.  When your brain is changing and adapting, it needs a bit more protein than normal because it’s literally creating and moving neurons in your body.  These neurons need protein in order to alter their structures so be sure your diet is well balanced.
  5. Be Deliberate About This New Habit.  Don’t just adapt without thinking about why and how you’re adapting.  Work to type in a way that really fits with this new keyboard and in a style that you want for yourself and the people around you.  Ultimately, how do you want to feel when you’re typing?  The new keyboard wants you to type with more precision, with a smoother flow and with a gentle touch.  Also, people don’t want to listen to or watch you hammer away at the thing like you’re super pissed.  It’s really annoying to be on the observing end of this so consider putting some serious effort into customizing your new habit for you while also considering everyone else.  We’ll thank you for it!

Wrapping It Up and Predictions for Apple’s Future Changes

The new Apple keyboard is ultimately really good and pretty cool.  I’m liking it more and more as I get used to it, but it’s going to take just that.  Do I wish that Apple had made in quieter?  Absolutely, the amount of change is challenging and I want to be lazy like everyone else.  This change is pretty significant and honestly, I’m really not enjoying it so far but I’m hopeful that this will change as my brain, nerves and muscles adjust with practice.  It’s hard to not be overcome by my frustration and not to blame it all on Apple…but the reality is that our bodies can’t adapt as quickly as we would like, especially when we’re a bit older and our neurons want to be lazy.  Now, if I set this change component aside what is my evaluation of the keyboard?  I don’t think it’s the greatest thing but I can see where they’re going.  Ultimately, I think they want us to get used to using a totally different kind of keyboard…one that’s only a touch screen and has no moving parts at all.  This new keyboard design is a great way to move us in this direction, though I really don’t want to go in that direction at all.  My brain and my body really like how things have been…but I know it’s good for me to adapt and change my habits, so I’ll suck it up and move forward with the changes…

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