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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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7 Comments

Well, it's good to know I'm not crazy. Or at least I'm not the only one who suffered from this childhood mental illness. I remember once trying to explain this to my mother, and she actually didn't believe me. I described the personalities of all the different numbers to her, as I imagined them, and she said, "I'll bet you couldn't tell me that the same way twice."

This interesting line of thought brings to mind a (relatively) minor passage in Martha Beck's book, Leaving the Saints, where she speculates on the differences between her own and her father's experiences of the divine. Her own being of infinite love and peace and her father's of mathmatical equations. She assumes that they are the same somehow and percieved differently depending on the personality that has the experience.

You know, my own experience really affirms Holt's ideas--as if he needed my affirmation!--as well as Levin's. When I was listening to the Levin show, I was reminded of my first real epiphanal experience. It occurred while I was an undergraduate physics major studying quantum mechanics, and specifically the tensor products of Hilbert spaces. The moment the notoriously difficult concept became clear to me, I had the experience of suddenly being aware of the deep symmetry of the cosmos. It was like seeing God's signature on the universe.

I had the same sort of experience as Allyson while studying group theory applications to predicting crystal structure. The fact that it worked so well took my breath away. It convinced me that there had to be a Creator, that such complexity could not possibly be by chance alone.

This is a wonderful observation. I teach adult remedial Math, and by the time the students get to me they have had all the joy of math drummed out of them. I really try to show them that math is beautiful, but when you have spent 12+ years being told that math is hard, and seeing it as ugly it is not easy to see the beauty.
Thank you

When it comes to 666 and the base 6 numbering system there are many interesting words and letter combonations that even rearranged have intertwined meanings otherwise known as GEMETRA .

For Example;

A SKY JACKING = 666

ARAB SUICIDES = 666

NEW YORK = 666

hubpages.com/hub/666-words-nam...

I love the discussion of the characters of numbers--I have always felt that numbers are related to colors as well. 5 is red/orange, uncomfortable and hot. 4 is cool and calm in its skin, and 6 cool and fluid; both in the blue-green spectrum. 3 is yellow, and edgy. 8 has a sense of humor but is a little retreated; 7 hard to know, and 2 is a friend. What fun!

apples