Thursday, February 22, 2007

How To Sap Your Brain and Reduce Your Computational Abilities

Simply take a subject like math that is ingrained in everyday life, something you can't help but do if you live, something the simplest humans have been doing for millennia: counting their bushels of wheat, subtracting the number of goats they sold to their neighbor, calculating the footing of a gigantic stone pyramid; take that subject and make it so abstract and abstruse that it's barely comprehensible, then test people on their timed, immediate recall of those abstracted facts and figures and voila! You have created a monster. It's name: math anxiety.

A new study has shown that "Math anxiety -- feelings of dread and fear and avoiding math -- can sap the brain's limited amount of working capacity, a resource needed to compute difficult math problems." Apparently math anxiety (a completely school-generated construct) actually occupies space in a person's working memory, space that could be put to better uses such as, well, actually thinking and calculating and remembering things.

Fortunately, there's a simple and effective solution out there: don't abstract math out of its very real and immediate usefulness in everyday life. Don't make it a "subject" to be dissected, timed, tested, and ultimately feared at such a young age. Let math be joyous and freewheeling. Let it be measuring cups of flour if you double the recipe and calculating how much time it will take to save up for that treasured toy, figuring how high to make a treehouse and how many boards it will take to build it. Let it be how soon we'll get to grandma's house if it's one hundred miles and we're going sixty miles and hour, or how many more days it is until Christmas, how to divide three pumpkin pies among fifteen guests, or the octaves it takes to sing Oh Holy Night.

There will be plenty of time for abstracted math, for math in its purest forms for those who wish to pursue it (or for those whose chosen paths in life require a greater amount of mathematical knowledge). There will be time for piR2 and 3x+14y=z, for vectors and functions and geometries. When that time comes, it can be met joyously in the knowledge that math is something that intertwines among the fabric of life, in music and art and buildings and food; something elemental and of a precise beauty, not something abstract to be feared and detested.

In the meantime, I'm off to bake some cookies. A double recipe.

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