Drama of a math joke

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

The old math joke goes like this: The ship carries 20 sheep and 16 goats. How old is the captain? When I found out that a large proportion of kids answer this question with 36, I was in disbelief. I struggled with empathy for a brain that would be so badly derailed. When I jokingly tested this question on a first grader, the conversation was not too surprising. The answer was 50. The justification was: "My mom is 25. I think that captain should be a bit smarter. I think 50 would be just fine". I was amused with kid's self confidence, but noticed that his mom started being uncomfortable. As if she feared she would be next. This required further testing. I ruthlessly asked the math question. I was in shock when mom delivered that infamous verdict: 36. I instantly knew this could only be explained by toxic memories. The lady had been paralyzed by the fear of math and, with a knee jerk reaction, assumed the answer must be in numbers in the question. Like a well-schooled robot, she provided the answer. This is what poorly delivered math training does to young minds: useless fear! Fear with no purpose at the cost freedom and long hours of drilling in a school bench. Interestingly, the lady is a shopping clerk and she seems to be pretty fluent with numbers. It is that toxic memory of a typical question delivered by a math teacher that jumbled her mind and destroyed the pleasure of the day. Contrast that with an undamaged kid who hypothesized fearlessly. I can only hope his free thinking does not get damaged at school

This is how I see the events occurring in a panicked math brain. It all begins with a recognition of a typical math task. This instantly triggers a toxic memory that associates math with the state of anxiety. The fear of math paralyzes all intellectual capacities that might lead to a rational solution. In neural terms, well-polished networks trigger fast, high performance, high stability circuits that instantly take over the job of finding the solution. Those circuits are characterized by low coherence and do not integrate well with the world knowledge. They are targeted at providing a robotic solution by employing fast thinking. The algorithm for finding the solution might have, over years, through interference, lost all its vestiges of responding to the actual logical input involved in the task. Instead, the brain strips the problem to bare bones and follows the algorithm:

  • if two numbers appear in a math task, employ 4 basic operators: +, -, *, :, and choose the result that is most plausible
  • if there is little time left (for solving the test), pick addition, which is easiest. In a multiple-choice test, it still provides 25% chance of success
  • if numbers are too big to employ the operator, give up and jump to the next test to solve. In real life, play a diversion game, and cover up your tracks. Be sure you do not get caught with hot ignorance in your hands. Don't let anyone see you with your math pants down

That last part of "covering up" may compound toxic memories that lead to math anxiety.

Contrast this with a toddler who plays Lego bricks, and will keep re-shuffling that wall of bricks until it gets even and provides room for moving to the next level. The little snot will internalize number sense and coherently and consistently integrate it with his world knowledge using his learn drive and his knowledge valuation network.

Outwardly, our abstract adult brain can see the same math problem to solve. Our empathy is too weak to escape the abstraction. On the other hand, for an immature brain, the same powerful learning mechanisms can be employed for two entirely different jobs: (1) solving a real life math problem, or (2) surviving in a classroom.

Misemployment of the learn drive, the genius neural mechanisms developed in the course of evolution, is the key tragedy of modern mass education