There is an interesting article in last week’s New Yorker called “Numbers Guy.” The article details the work of cognitive researcher Stanislas Deheane, but touches on some interesting philosophical issues. Not least, the problem of consciousness and how it is we learn anything. According to Deheane, humans have an inbuilt “number sense” capable of some basic calculations and estimates. The problems start when we learn mathematics and have to perform procedures that are anything but instinctive.
Dehaene has spent most of his career plotting the contours of our number sense and puzzling over which aspects of our mathematical ability are innate and which are learned, and how the two systems overlap and affect each other. He has approached the problem from every imaginable angle. Working with colleagues both in France and in the United States, he has carried out experiments that probe the way numbers are coded in our minds. He has studied the numerical abilities of animals, of Amazon tribespeople, of top French mathematics students. He has used brain-scanning technology to investigate precisely where in the folds and crevices of the cerebral cortex our numerical faculties are nestled. And he has weighed the extent to which some languages make numbers more difficult than others. His work raises crucial issues about the way mathematics is taught. In Dehaene’s view, we are all born with an evolutionarily ancient mathematical instinct. To become numerate, children must capitalize on this instinct, but they must also unlearn certain tendencies that were helpful to our primate ancestors but that clash with skills needed today. And some societies are evidently better than others at getting kids to do this. In both France and the United States, mathematics education is often felt to be in a state of crisis. The math skills of American children fare poorly in comparison with those of their peers in countries like Singapore, South Korea, and Japan. Fixing this state of affairs means grappling with the question that has taken up much of Dehaene’s career: What is it about the brain that makes numbers sometimes so easy and sometimes so hard?
For Dehaene, numerical thought is only the beginning of this quest. Recently, he has been pondering how the philosophical problem of consciousness might be approached by the methods of empirical science. Experiments involving subliminal “number priming” show that much of what our mind does with numbers is unconscious, a finding that has led Dehaene to wonder why some mental activity crosses the threshold of awareness and some doesn’t. Collaborating with a couple of colleagues, Dehaene has explored the neural basis of what is known as the “global workspace” theory of consciousness, which has elicited keen interest among philosophers. In his version of the theory, information becomes conscious when certain “workspace” neurons broadcast it to many areas of the brain at once, making it simultaneously available for, say, language, memory, perceptual categorization, action-planning, and so on. In other words, consciousness is “cerebral celebrity,” as the philosopher Daniel Dennett has described it, or “fame in the brain.”
In his office at NeuroSpin, Dehaene described to me how certain extremely long workspace neurons might link far-flung areas of the human brain together into a single pulsating circuit of consciousness. To show me where these areas were, he reached into a closet and pulled out an irregularly shaped baby-blue plaster object, about the size of a softball. “This is my brain!” he announced with evident pleasure. The model that he was holding had been fabricated, he explained, by a rapid-prototyping machine (a sort of three-dimensional printer) from computer data obtained from one of the many MRI scans that he has undergone. He pointed to the little furrow where the number sense was supposed to be situated, and observed that his had a somewhat uncommon shape. Curiously, the computer software had identified Dehaene’s brain as an “outlier,” so dissimilar are its activation patterns from the human norm. Cradling the pastel-colored lump in his hands, a model of his mind devised by his own mental efforts, Dehaene paused for a moment. Then he smiled and said, “So, I kind of like my brain.”
Read the rest here