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talljasperman's avatar

How does the human brain do math?

Asked by talljasperman (18201 points ) August 26th, 2011

For example when a person decides what angle and strength to throw a ball to hit a target…? The process smacks of calculus and trigonometry. Is the part of the brain that exclusively uses advanced math exist… If so how did it evolve and what else can the human brain do that smacks of advanced math?

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17 Answers

LostInParadise's avatar

That is a very good question, but I don’t think that neuroscience is advanced enough to tackle it just yet. I found this, which may give an idea of how much more work has to be done in this area.

gravity's avatar

I wish I knew. I believe I was at the ice cream truck buying a popsicle when they handed out math genes.

gasman's avatar

I suppose the short answer is that nobody has the slightest idea. But your example of accurate throwing doesn’t require that the brain calculate a trajectory mathematically, just because that’s how you’d program a robot to do it. Instead the brain is doing its unique neural-net wet-ware thing, and in the end it just “feels right” to throw a certain way, especially based on lots of practice. Synaptic transmission is a complex mix of analog and digital processes, and memory storage & retrieval remain a mystery.

ratboy's avatar

Seems unlikely that there’s anything special about humans when it comes to such calculations; consider the calculations that would be required to make an aircraft do this.

flutherother's avatar

We are just beginning to investigate how this works. It was recently discovered that bees can solve complex mathematical problems although their brains are tiny.

ucme's avatar

I think memory has a lot to do with it. I just use my fingers, much easier ;¬}

ZEPHYRA's avatar

@gravity I must have been with you that day!

PhiNotPi's avatar

There are many other things that the brain does that involves very large amounts of math. Object recognition from different perpectives, for example. But the coolest one is when the brain predicts what what the world would look like one tenth of a second from now, to make up for the human reaction time. No one knows how the brain can do that.

Jellie's avatar

@gravity & @ZEPHYRA I think I went out to look for you both and got late coming back.

thorninmud's avatar

The brain performs and learns complex motor operations by feedback and analogy.

It makes approximations, tries them, then makes adjustments based on the results, tries again, readjusts…and repeats this process until the desired result is achieved. If you want to call this “doing math”, then it’s a pretty crude form of math. It only works because the brain has such an enormous amount of processing power , thanks to its almost inconceivable number of neural connections.

Try this: hold your computer mouse upside down (with its buttons toward the heel of your hand instead of your fingertips. Now pick a target area on the screen and try to move the cursor there. Your first motion will be wildly off. It was your brain’s wild guess about what to do. But now the feedback loop kicks in. Your eyes will have supplied information about the results and how they match the goal. Your brain will use that information to make a slightly more refined guess about what to do, and the process will repeat. This will happen with such speed that in less than a minute, you will be fairly competent at directing the cursor where you want it. It will even start to feel completely natural. This is the same process by which the brain learns all complex motor functions.

All through this feedback learning process, the brain is constructing a mental model of this particular aspect of the world. That modeling process is more recognizably mathematical than is the feedback learning by which it is acquired, because it is an abstraction. It defines the players in the scenario and then describes how they relate to each other in a way that can be encoded in memory. This code is written in the mental language of space and time and proprioception.

This abstract modeling provides a shortcut for dealing with new situations. When faced with a new task, the brain sifts through its library of models for one that’s analogous to the new situation, one where there are similarities of entities and relationships. This way, it doesn’t have to start from scratch in the feedback learning process, but can start from the actions that yielded the best result in the previous similar situation. The feedback process will still be required, though, because analogies are rarely perfect.

Bagardbilla's avatar

This is your brain doing Math! Pretty amazing eh?...!

“TH15 M3554G3 53RV35 T0 PR0V3 H0W OUR M1ND5 C4N D0 4M4Z1NG TH1NG5! 1MPR3SS1V3 TH1NG5! 1N TH3 B3G1NN1NG 1T W4S H4RD BUT N0W, 0N TH15 L1N3 Y0UR M1ND 1S R34D1NG 1T 4UT0M4T1C4LLY W1TH PR4T1C4LLY N0 TH1NK1NG 1NV0LV3D R1GHT? B3 V3RY PR0UD ! Y0U D35ERVE 4 P4T 0N TH3 B4CK!”

Kardamom's avatar

Over here in Kardamom’s brain it doesn’t!

Hangs head in shame

Jeruba's avatar

“PR4T1C4LLY” is misspelled.

flutherother's avatar

@Jeruba No one else in the world would have noticed that :-)

Bagardbilla's avatar

@Jeruba wish I could give all my lurves to you… ;)

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