Neurons and math but you lost me at math

Courtesy photo

I recently read an in-depth study by the Universities of Tubingen and Bonn, both in Germany, showing for the first time how the brain calculates mathematical operations. The researchers fed the brain cells’ activity patterns into a self-learning computer program. At the same time, they told the software whether the subjects were currently calculating a sum or a difference. Did you get that — a self-learning computer program for math? That computer willingly and eagerly wanted to learn math. I can barely comprehend it. Everything I know about math I learned against my will.

When performing calculations, some neurons are active when adding, and others when subtracting. This is interesting since it shows I personally have a parahippocampal cortex and upon using a plus sign, its nerves do a jig. When adding up a paycheck, a hospital bill, or a tax notice, I don’t mean to brag, but I’m practically a math wizard. I’m such a wonder at totaling sums, I could be a crackerjack CPA for Elon Musk, I’m that confident in my skills.
But subtracting and all that taking away and carrying over malarky just gives me the shivers. And for sure, don’t ask me anything involving algebra, even though I like to tell people I could have made it through Algebra 3. That’s what I’d call it if I’d taken Algebra 1 three times, which I clearly did not. When I’m feeling melancholy and muse that I’d like to go back to my youth, I remember algebra and geometry and that propels me forward like an African Springbok.

In elementary, kids are taught that 3 apples plus 2 apples add up to 5 apples. However, what happens in the brain during such calculations was unknown. This study attempted and somewhat succeeded in shedding light on this issue by implanting electrodes into individuals. Yes, five women and four men happily stepped forward and gushed “yes” to having electrodes shoved into their temporal lobes to record the activity of nerve cells; then the participants had to perform simple arithmetic tasks.

First of all, I wouldn’t have allowed it and simply proclaimed, “My nerve cells and my temporal lobes don’t know they’re first cousins, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

Second, when studying my brain using mathematics, those sad researchers would have been perplexed over whether it was a brain problem or faulty equipment because Bill, turning to Frank in puzzlement, would have bemused, “When I asked her temporal lobe to compute, I think she may have lost consciousness.”

To my understanding, when subjects were asked to calculate the apple scenario by adding 5 and 3, their addition neurons sprang into action, whereas for 7 minus 4, their subtraction neurons did. Except mine, which would be troubling if I was sane because these scientists knew from experiments that neuron computation existed in monkey brains also.

Yes, in monkeys! And here’s something else for free — the researchers knew more about brain activity in monkeys doing math than human brains doing math. This is probably because only nine humans willingly came forward to have implants forced into their heads, while monkeys had no say. To be clear, these are my thoughts, not the university’s thoughts.

The study was founded by the German Research Foundation and the Volkswagen Foundation. I was stunned. Volkswagen? Then it all made sense. They want to sell vehicles and perhaps, and I’m definitely making this up, maybe they put a little something into that probe that got introduced into the brains of those saps who said yes. Maybe in that instrument was a tiny subliminal message playing, “I need a new car and boy, I sure do feel like a Volkswagen would be the cat’s pajamas.” Can I be sued for pretending to have answers?

I wish the foundation would have demanded that the researchers find out why we say “fifty thousand” but never “half a hundred thousand” or “five hundred,” but never “half a thousand.” It’s an oddity because we easily proclaim “half a million” and rarely “five hundred thousand.” Don’t ask me to deduce why that is. When someone unknowingly quizzes me on anything having to do with math, I realize right away my day is about to change for the worse. I become stoic, very businesslike and while nodding and shaking my head at the same time, not unlike a Parkinson's patient, I lean into the simpleton interrogator and in a hushed tone, whisper, “When it comes to inquiries involving analytical probabilities, I can’t answer without my lawyer present.”

Trena Eiden [email protected]