Mental Calculations SELF Challenge – I

On Friday night I was working on a sales data and using Excel for computing figures. My four-year-old daughter was sitting next to me with the TV remote. She was frantically flipping channels to track down her favourite Shin-Chan cartoon.

An image popped up, that of Albert Einstein and in an instant, I said ‘Albert Einstein’. Now it wasn’t one of those Einstein-flipping-out-his-tongue versions, it was a photo from his youth; one which hasn’t been circulated as much as the others.

He looked different, yet, within a second, before my daughter changed the channel, I traced the image to Einstein’s. Subsequently, I started to wonder how good we are at recognizing pictures and how pedestrian at doing simple mathematical calculations.

It is astonishing that it takes us less than a second to recognize an Einstein image and blurt out his name, but we need a calculator when it comes to working out a simple calculation of, let’s say 17*29.

Notwithstanding the fact that the computation involved in image recognition is way too complex – requiring image classification and speech synthesis – than the multiplication problem, humans are brilliant at the former and mediocre at the latter.

Oddly, this is how things work.

I asked myself if it was possible to compute in our head at the speed we recognize pictures. Yes, I know there are geniuses who are pretty good at it. But lesser mortals like me have always left the hard job to our calculators – just that Casio has been replaced by Google Calculator in the recent times.

This could be a long shot. But, I have decided to take the plunge and issue myself a challenge.

Self Challenge (1)

I have decided not to use a calculator of any kind. While I will have to rely on those tools for complex calculations, but for smaller multiplication and addition calculations – those involving 2-3 digits, to begin with –  I’d rather rack my brains.

As I write this piece, a computation like 345*469 is still off-limits, but, I can precisely work out something like 345*420 in my head (without using a pen or pencil) in around 40-50 seconds.

Only 3 days ago, it was taking me 4-5 minutes to get the right answer.

This is my progress of 3 days. I am not sure if I would be able to do it subconsciously one day after a rigorous practice. But if that ever happens, it will be an awesome achievement.

What is hard todayThere are a lot of mathemagicians out there who can give you the rules of thumb to do fast calculations in your head. But I have decided to follow my own lead.

If the last 3 days’ signs are anything to go by, I believe our brains are more than capable of developing their own heuristics over a period of time.

It’s a slow process just like when you try to swim for the first time. You can and will get frustrated and fatigued. But if you persist for 4-5 days and overcome the temptation to use a calculator, you will see yourself making small gains.

The fact is that if we set our mind to something we only get better. The problem is that in life, half the things we do we don’t have any interest in – this could be your full-time job, a hobby that you are pursuing to look cool to your friends, you know what I mean.

This is my first post in my mental calculations self-challenge. I wanted to document it here so that I have a sense of accountability and this had better be a challenge than a passing fancy.

I would share my progress in the upcoming posts – I am sure there will be something to write about – if only to encourage others to try the same. Thank you for reading.

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