Mathematics, Memory, and Space
Plato once wrote that mathematics exists in the world of ideas, independent of humankind. The question is how this abstract thing called mathematics is represented in the three-pound grayish-brown clump of cells that fills our skulls. We’ve seen in Chapter 2 that the brain’s maturity can explain improvements in working memory, but how are we to understand the strong links with math? Our knowledge of how the brain represents and processes mathematical concepts comes from analyses of brain activity, studies of children with mathematical difficulties, and case descriptions of exceptionally gifted individuals, like that of Daniel Tammet.
Daniel was born in east London in 1979, the first child of impoverished parents, who would go on to have another eight sons and daughters. Daniel’s parents were quick to note that their son was different to their other offspring: he engaged in repetitive behavior, such as banging his head against the wall or spinning a coin for hours on end. He had poor contact with the other children at his nursery and could sit staring at grains of sand while everyone else was running around playing. He was also obsessed with routines and would insist that his parents take him on exactly the same route to his nursery every day. Later, his parents would learn that many of these symptoms were typical of autism, and when he reached adulthood Daniel was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Typical for someone