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Life Is Good

May 21, 2011

Isn’t it glorious to finally find out something you’ve been wanting to learn for years?  I had been struggling to understand how our brain works with numbers, and what numbers are.  I began thinking, “I wish a neuroscientist would focus on mathematics, showing which brain circuits are involved in numerical thinking, and how we do mathematical logic and calculation.”  I figured that it was probably a combination of different mental systems, notably our language system and the same systems which we use to categorize and do other abstract thought.  Then, I found Stanislas Dehaene’s book The Number Sense:  How The Mind Creates Mathematics.  My mouth dropped.  As I found it on Amazon, its cover began to beam with a glorious aura.  I opened it and found this in the introduction.

This book will take you on a tour of arithmetic as seen from the eyes of a biologist, but without neglecting its cultural components. In Chapters 1 and 2, through an initial visit of animals and human infant’s abilities for arithmetic, I shall try to convince you that our mathematical abilities are not without biological precursors. Indeed, in Chapter 3 we shall find many traces of the animal mode of processing numbers still at work in adult human behavior. In Chapters 4 and 5, by observing how children learn to count and to calculate, we shall then attempt to understand how this initial approximate system can be overcome, and the difficulties that the acquisition of advanced mathematics raises for our primate brain. This will be a good occasion to investigate current methods of mathematical teaching and to examine the extent to which they have naturally adapted to our mental architecture. In Chapter 6 we shall also try to sort out the characteristics that: distinguish a young Einstein or a calculating prodigy from the rest of us. In Chapters 7 and 8, finally, our number hunt will end up in the fissures of the cerebral cortex, where the neuronal circuits that support calculation are located, and from which, alas, they can be dislodged by a lesion or a vascular accident, thus depriving otherwise normal persons of their number sense.

He’s not only going to teach me how humans do mathematical thought, but also the gradual evolution of animal brains and how and why they acquired a ‘number sense’?  I’ll learn the degree to which different animals can do mathematics?  Forgive me if I neglect all else until I finish this book in its entirety.

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