The Ineluctable Modality of Numbers

Wednesday, March 19, 2008 - 4:19 pm

The Ineluctable Modality of Numbers

Catching up on my New Yorker reading, I ran across this article from the March 3 issue about the way the human brain is hardwired for math. It reminded me of my own peculiar sense of numbers as a kid, especially the numbers 1-10. At some point, around 1st grade, my brain gave those numbers distinct personalities, genders, and even relationships with each other. The number 6 for instance was an awkward, nerdy boy, and the number 9 was a sophisticated young woman. 6 looked up to 9 like a cool older sister, but she couldn’t stand him, and whenever they were multiplied or added, 9 couldn’t wait for the computation to end. She much preferred the company of 4 and 8, both of them cool, confident boys, though 8 was more disaffected than eager, cheerful 4 (I could go on and on like this).

What’s fascinating to me is the author Jim Holt’s statement that, according to cognitive science, “We have a sense of number that is independent of language, memory, and reasoning in general.” To me, numbers feel like a human invention, just as alphabets and words are human inventions, but it’s apparently more like numbers are a part of nature. And according to this research, our brains grasp the rudimentaries of math as intuitively as we grasp hunger, thirst, and love.
It made me think of Janna Levin’s response on our show “Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth” when Krista asked her, “Does the fact that one plus one equals two have anything to do with God?” Levin said, “If I were to ever lean towards spiritual thinking or religious thinking, it would be in that way. It would be, why is it that there is this abstract mathematics that guides the universe? The universe is remarkable because we can understand it. That’s what’s remarkable.”

About the images: top photo by jbushnell/Flickr and second photo by Genista/Flickr

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