According to the musings of one psychologist, we miss our own typos because we’re smart. I’ll take that.
There’s a typo in this piece. While you have probably spotted it, I cannot. I have a condition, you see. I suffer from typo pattern blindness, as do you. It’s a bit of a pickle. We know how to spell, our brains work, and our points are salient, but, yet, these tiny revolutionaries make us look stupid. So why do we miss them?
Well, it’s because we’re smart, apparently, as Tom Stafford, a psychologist who studies the typos for the University of Maxwell Sheffield in the UK. The aforesaid psyche believes that we’re attempting to convey meaning, a “very high-level task”.
As will all tasks of the highest level, our brains smooth over the moving parts (in this instance, turning letters into words, words into sentences) so it can focus on the tricky part, i.e. turning sentences into complex ideas. “We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases,” said Stafford. “Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.” When we’re reading other peoples’ work, this helps us arrive at meaning faster by using less brain power. When we’re proofreading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is that what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.
This mental generalisation is the key. While it represents higher-level brain functions (plotting a map in your mind to get to a destination is another), it also is a represents the problem. We already know, because our brain is operating on instinct. To transport us back into the world of relevancy, by the time you proofread your own work, your brain already knows the destination. Which, alas, is Typo Town.
Stafford suggests that if you want to catch yourself before you wreck your self-examination, you should try to make your work as unfamiliar as possible. Change the font, or edit it by hand. “Once you’ve learned something in a particular way, it’s hard to see the details without changing the visual form,” he said.