Numbers on the Brain

The human brain is interesting to me. It is the ultimate parallel computing machine. So much is distributed and adaptable. For instance, numbers. Numbers have a place in our evolved brains, but really numbers that are tangible. Numbers that are more abstract must be taught. Jim Holt wrote a piece for The New Yorker called Numbers Guy and it goes into the subject with greater attention.

A few highlights that I found interesting:

The human brain can interpret up to three objects without having to individualize them. There is a natural sense for the these small numbers. So instead of saying 1 plus 1 plus 1 is three with lightening quick reasoning, the brain can just see three objects and know the total. Maybe it relates to how many you can carry. But once you get to four, the brain has to kick in and rationalize this difference.

Your brain doesn’t really have a math center. Parts of your math ability are spread across your whole mind. For example, some are tied to other evolutionary segments in the brain like squeezing your right hand or music.

The human brain is structured to be associative. Meaning we learn better through stories. That is why stories are such a great medium to remember. Numbers and bullet points tend to be more easily forgotten; only living in short term memory.

Just about everyone, regardless of their education level, can answer the question “which is the higher number 15 or 60?” But some people can’t answer a question like this: Which is a higher number 75 or 78.


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