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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

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 24 2013: Random "wiring" configurations aside, the brain is not a mathematical engine.
    It has evolved as a Bayesian comparison engine that makes predictions as to what will happen in the immediate future and then compares what does happen to note the changes.
    To do so, nature required a general computing engine that allows us to develop math, science, chemistry, but also allows us to believe in gods and ghosts.
    You have to take the good with the bad I guess.
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      Mar 24 2013: Interesting.

      I believe that when Alan Turing was working on one of the first physical computers he started with a design for a general computing engine but added a specific arithmetic engine to make simple math functions run quicker.
      • Mar 24 2013: All the computer designs had math co-processors in them even as far back as mainframes. Math is a very specific operation that can be done better when optimized for it alone.
    • Mar 24 2013: What's the benefit of the ability to believe in "god's and ghosts" and furthermore do you feel it it's truly detrimental to ones well being that they have this ability. Why would nature do that? I would be very interested in your thoughts.
      • Mar 24 2013: There are none. Or at least none that come to mind. I suppose that Joseph Campbell would argue that the ability to tell myths is very important when supporting the structure of society and I would not argue.
        However, when ever you develop a complex system based on simple rules you get a lot of emergent behaviours not intended in the initial design.
        For example, have you thought that perhaps intelligence is not the be-all and end-all in evolution that we would like to think. Throughout human evolution brain size increased to a maximum at Neanderthals after which it began decreasing again. Maybe nature has decided that intelligence was a bad choice and is selecting it out of existence.
        It will take hundreds of millions of years before politicians notice it though.
        • Mar 24 2013: If brain size and intelligence are directly
          related i think nature wouldnt have found a more efficient way to
          design the same thing.... Higher intelligence, smaller brain size.
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        Mar 25 2013: I have not come across any research which has really tried to answer the question, 'What's the benefit of the ability to believe in "god's and ghosts"?' It seems like a reasonable question for a scientist to pose.

        My instinct is that it is not an unintended byproduct of a complex system. But maybe that is a topic for a different discussion.

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