A Book Review of The Math Instinct by Keith Devlin
As part of my summer reading, I read the fascinating and informative book The Math Instinct. This included an interesting journey through mathematics in the natural world, plus a review of how math works in the human mind. It was this latter part that really intrigued me the most.
The book opens with recent studies that show newborn babies have the innate ability to count to 3, even at a few days old. It turns out all humans, including the ancients, have the natural ability to count one, two and three. In fact all numbering systems use a similar system to show these numbers as either a dot or line. What about our representation of 1, 2, 3? Looking back at the ancient Indian script these numbers are based upon, they match the pattern as well:
1, 2, 3 in modified Ancient Indian script (without lifting the pen)
What’s more, studies show that people are very good with arithmetic when it is used in a meaningful context. Children shopkeepers in Brazil were shown to have good math skills at their market stalls, but failed abysmally at identical math questions in a formal classroom setting. The same was found with adult shoppers and carpenters. Why? Because when math is reduced to symbols it quickly loses its meaning to most of us.
And what about those pesky times tables? Our minds are made to recognize patterns, and it is this pattern recognition that messes us up when it comes to multiplication. A typical six year old child has a vocabulary of between 13,000 and 15,000 words but will struggle to learn the 18 numbers in the single digit times tables times (removing repeats and simple ones like times 1, times 2, and times 5). It is pattern interference that prevents us from learning this easily.
In short, we are all better at math than we give ourselves credit for. We have no trouble determining the larger size of a product when shopping and we are very good to spot a bargain. This book will help you see math differently, and open up your mind to the possibility that we may all be math-smart after all.