Friday, March 07, 2008

This is your brain on numbers...

After some pretty awful experiments like "New Math" (I'm showing my age here) brain researchers are finally getting some firmer ideas about how we deal with numbers. Don't remember New Math? Maybe this will help.

But I digress. We now know we have an evolved sense that can handle small numbers rapidly and accurately.
Six-month-old babies, exposed simultaneously to images of common objects and sequences of drumbeats, consistently gaze longer at the collection of objects that matches the number of drumbeats. By now, it is generally agreed that infants come equipped with a rudimentary ability to perceive and represent number.
Then we have numerals themselves and number words.
Today, Arabic numerals are in use pretty much around the world, while the words with which we name numbers naturally differ from language to language. And, as Dehaene and others have noted, these differences are far from trivial. English is cumbersome. There are special words for the numbers from 11 to 19, and for the decades from 20 to 90. This makes counting a challenge for English-speaking children, who are prone to such errors as “twenty-eight, twenty-nine, twenty-ten, twenty-eleven.” French is just as bad, with vestigial base-twenty monstrosities, like quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (“four twenty ten nine”) for 99. Chinese, by contrast, is simplicity itself; its number syntax perfectly mirrors the base-ten form of Arabic numerals, with a minimum of terms. Consequently, the average Chinese four-year-old can count up to forty, whereas American children of the same age struggle to get to fifteen. And the advantages extend to adults. Because Chinese number words are so brief—they take less than a quarter of a second to say, on average, compared with a third of a second for English—the average Chinese speaker has a memory span of nine digits, versus seven digits for English speakers. (Speakers of the marvellously efficient Cantonese dialect, common in Hong Kong, can juggle ten digits in active memory.) [The rest of a great article]
But the brain is the result of evolution and all these concepts are handled in different parts of the brain. Now that technology can help us found out where and how we calculate (or fail to), we can both learn and teach mathematics better.

But then we've said that before.

I think this is important for men especially, since we don't seem to have the linguistic skills as those other people - women. And now that there are fewer impediments to women in most areas of human endeavor (in most countries, at least), we could be on our way to matriarchies.
Scientific literature has been littered with studies over the past 40 years documenting the superior language skills of girls, but the biological reason why has remained a mystery until now.

Researchers report in the journal Neuropsychologia that the answer lies in the way words are processed: Girls completing a linguistic abilities task showed greater activity in brain areas implicated specifically in language encoding, which decipher information abstractly. Boys, on the other hand, showed a lot of activity in regions tied to visual and auditory functions, depending on the way the words were presented during the exercise.

The finding suggests that although linguistic information goes directly to the seat of language processing in the female brain, males use sensory machinery to do a great deal of the work in untangling the data. In a classroom setting, it implies that boys need to be taught language both visually (with a textbook) and orally (through a lecture) to get a full grasp of the subject, whereas a girl may be able to pick up the concepts by either method. [More]
I think many parents of boys instinctively have arrived at the same conclusion, and hence the wide approval of the Harry Potter series as a way to get boys to read - regardless of heebie-jeebies the books gave many conservatives.

These two peculiarities also may combine in agriculture (stay with me) as we are a nominally literature-poor occupation. (When all else fails, read the manual). More to the point, we could be making instinctive judgments about numbers (data) that are colored by our under-utilized language centers.

The bottom line is being (until now) an overwhelmingly male profession, our knowledge traditions may not provide us with learning techniques that can enable us compete with those who can learn via modes other than demonstration (field days, examples, pictures, etc.).

And we know what those competitors look like.


Anonymous said...

Cool! I'm trendy! And I thought I was the only female farmer out here forcing my husband to work off-farm. But I still have to deal with the "Oh, you don't work" attitude from the other mommies. (Usually a diatribe on grain marketing quells this)

John Phipps said...


I don't think this is a passing fad. And remember your example changes the future for untold numbers of younger women.

This business model works well for us. Better technology in communications and machinery have been the keys.

Thanks for reading. And for farming.