Your brain the mathematician
29 April 2019
By Lucy Marlow
Some readers may enjoy maths and others may hate it. But, regardless of your opinion on mathematics, neuroscience research suggests that everyone’s brain is a superb mathematician.
A common topic covered in maths lessons is the idea of probabilities. By this we mean: how likely something is to happen.
It is thought that probabilities are used by the brain to help us sense absolutely anything from the things we see, hear and touch, to the sensations we feel inside our bodies like being hungry, or out of breath.
Sat in the skull, the brain has no direct access to any of these things. Instead it is fed information about the world, and its body, via connections with sensory organs. Your eyes send light information to help you see and your lungs send information about how hard they are working. The problem is, these signals aren’t particularly clear. So the brain receives a patchy message, a bit like when you have a bad phone signal and you can only catch parts of what the other person is saying.
This is where the maths comes in. To make sense of the message it has received from the sensory organs, the brain takes its best guess at what the message is likely to be. The brain uses past experiences and beliefs to make its prediction.
For example, say you knew your friend was going to call you about meeting up this weekend, and you heard a garbled message including the word 'burgers'. Your best guess at what they were trying to say may be something along the lines of 'Let’s get burgers at Bernie’s this weekend', based on your knowledge that they wanted to make plans for the weekend, they said 'burgers' and their favourite burger restaurant is Bernie’s.
Of course, sometimes the best guess, or prediction, made by your brain can be wrong. Your friend may have in fact said 'let’s definitely avoid burgers, I ate loads of them last weekend'. Importantly, this means that what you experience isn’t necessarily a direct reflection of the world around you, or even the changes in your own body.
To complicate things, the brain’s best guess is also influenced by mood and emotions as well as your past experiences and beliefs. So, if you were particularly excited to eat a burger, you may be more likely to hear 'let’s get burgers', rather than 'let’s definitely avoid burgers'.
So next time you see a cup of coffee on the table, hear the birds singing, or feel hungry, remember what you are experiencing is not necessarily a replica of the real world. You experience your own version of the world, based on both information from your senses and your brain’s mathematical prediction formed from your past experiences, beliefs and emotions. Now then, time for a break, and maybe a burger…