Why Can’t Our Brains Handle Big Numbers?


This recent article in NPR News explains why our brains can’t handle big numbers. Elizabeth Toomarian, an educational neuroscientist at Stanford University, told that “Our human brains are pretty bad at comprehending large numbers”.

Toomarian, who studies how the brain processes numbers, told NPR News:

  • Ancient brains. Our brains are evolutionarily very old and we are pushing them to do things that we’ve only just recently conceptualized. Instead, the human brain is built to understand how much of something is in its environment. We certainly can use our brains in that way, but we’re recycling these sort of evolutionarily old brain architectures to do something really new.
  • Built to compare, not count. Our brains are fairly good at determining how many of something is in our environment–as long as that number is low, at a maximum of about four or maybe five objects. Beyond that, people make more mistakes.
  • Making it in a big number world. So what can we do about the struggle to understand big numbers? Toomarian suggests using metaphors, analogies and visualizations. These techniques bring big numbers down to a more comprehensible scale and ideally make it relevant to something in our daily lives.

In a recent article on The Conversation magazine which Toomarian and Lindsey Hasak wrote that when 1 million died during the Covid-19 pandemic, but our brain simply can’t understand what it means.

If the brain were built to understand these kinds of numbers, perhaps we would have made different individual decisions or taken different collective action. Instead, we now mourn for the million people behind the number.

– Lindsey Hasak and Elizabeth Y. Toomarian on The Conversation

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