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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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    Apr 2 2013: Because computers are machines programmed to perform mathematics. People are conscious beings. They experience and build their understanding of the world through their experience. Computers simply move bytes around mechanically and let functions fall into place.

    When you send 4 + 4 into a computer, the computer doesn't think about the answer. Rather the functions pass the information the way they were designed to and process it. It can and will never tell you 9. It has no mind and it doesn't learn. At best it programs itself, and only if designed to.
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      Apr 2 2013: Well I guess you are saying that a human mind is not like a computer. Or is it that describing the human mind as a computer might explain some basic abilities of the mind it does not capture some important qualities.

      Of course we could program a computer so that sometimes it will give the answer 9 to the question 4 + 4. For example we could ask the computer to add 4 x math random above 0.9 to 4 x math random above 0.9 and round the answer to a whole number. The question is why would we?

      Or to put it another way what is the value to us of having a mind that can produce the answer 9 when asked 4 + 4?

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