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Seamus McGrenery

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If the human brain is an advanced computer why are people so bad at math?

We seem to be able to do all sorts of complicated computations in our everyday lives.

For example most young children can predict the pat of a moving ball and move to catch it. The same children often seem to have difficulty with quite simple math problems.

Even educated adults have problems with any kind of complex math. For example I guess most of us would be unable to calculate the path of a moving ball in a short time, let alone calculate the path we would need to move to catch a a ball while it is in the air.

When it comes to understanding statistics it seems that even trained scientists sometime have trouble with them.

Topics: Human Brain math
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Closing Statement from Seamus McGrenery

While the computer analogy has some value in giving us an understanding of how our brains work it also has limits. It seems to be difficult to program humans for certain types of task, possibly because our brains work significantly differently to binary computation.

In much of what we see and here about our minds there seems to be a diminishing of the body and how much our brains serve our bodies. So much of our mental function is devoted to maintaining our bodies environmental stability, fluid and nutrition requirements as well as finding a mate and protecting our offspring. The things we are good at show us the importance of these functions, but because they are so 'basic' we tend to take them for granted.

Two interesting points in relation to the average persons math ability are highlighted in the debate.

Programming is the first.
If we accept that, at least in part, our brains work like a computer then we have to accept that, again at least in part, it is programmable. While there is a suggestion that, potentially, a human brain could operate as a supercomputer, in terms of math, we do not seem to have learned how. So the positive from this is that we may learn to unlock a great deal more of our mental potential.
More problematic is how, and by who, are we programmed. There seems to be some agreement that learning is somehow akin to programming. My own view is that we have active filters on the information we receive and that these filters present the highest barriers to any information that could be interpreted programmatic.
Even that does not seem to explain the difficult humans have in learning and practicing certain types of mathematical operations.

Second is type of computation
Implicit in some of this debate is the assumption that our brains do not work by binary arithmetic. Discovering the type of computation we use may give us a clearer understanding of our limitations, and maybe a way to unlock some of that extra potential.

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  • Mar 23 2013: Quoting Carl Sagan: "Something as simple as the concept of the number one has an elaborate logical underpinning". Computers definitely crunch numbers more quickly than most, but they don't compute the concept of their operations. Our minds are bogged down by the excessive background noise of understanding, clouding the simple approach to the end result.

    If we examine the minds of people like Daniel Tammet, their narrow band of focus allows them to avoid the fog and see the answers faster than a computer. If we had gargantuan fore brains that could manage the overload puked forth by the subconscious processes or a more fine tuned Singulate Gyrus to direct workflow, we might be faster.

    I've always wondered why my mind is very capable of doing trillions of on the fly calculations that vary by the second to tell my hand where to be to catch a ball thrown in an arc at 50mph through a cross wind of 6 knots, a gravitational field of 9.8m/s^2, and a drag coefficient of 0.3, but can take several minutes to solve the same problem on paper.
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      Mar 24 2013: So seeing the tasks we give to computers as simple and few in number gives an insight.

      The fuzziness of the concept of the number 1 may be something we have to deal with. But at the same time we need to regulate our breathing and heart-rate, be alert for sudden dangers, be it a lion on the plain or a robber in the building, make sure we have enough food, interact with other humans, maintain our positions in hierarchies.

      Cutting down on the things we have to do does seem to improve our abilities.
    • Mar 24 2013: Referring to the third paragraph, sometimes people are masterfull naturals at what they do and couldn't explain there own technique. It's like the body has an intelligence unto itself. When somebody who plays music gets in the zone there's absolutely no thought because it's detrimental to playing.
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        Mar 25 2013: Good point Nathan. It summarizes, I think, some of what Arkady is saying in terms of human skills.

        One reason human intelligence is unlike a computer is that in part it uses other parts of the human body to accumulate and apply 'information' to perform specific tasks. So maybe when a task like catching a ball needs to be repeated all the brain needs to do is send a 'close on contact' signall to the hand.

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