The Frontal Cortex

The Number Four

Look up charming in a dictionary and I’m pretty sure you’ll see this video:

Because we like to link everything to the brain over here at the Frontal Cortex, it’s worth mentioning that the number four also represents the outer limits of our numerical brain. Here’s Stanislas Dehaene, a leading researcher on the neuroscience of math:

Dehaene conjectured that, when we see numerals or hear number words, our brains automatically map them onto a number line that grows increasingly fuzzy above 3 or 4. He found that no amount of training can change this. “It is a basic structural property of how our brains represent number, not just a lack of facility,” he told me.


  1. #1 April
    July 24, 2008

    super catchy song and—Sesame Street, how can you go wrong???

  2. #2 davee
    August 6, 2008

    this reminds me of the illuminatus trilogy of books by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson – if i recall correctly – where they muse in their conspiracy theories that the pentagon has five sides and secret societies organize similarly because people cannot think in more than 4 independent variables at once. therefore the secret societies seem to have contradictions in behavior, as 5 or more sub-organizations appear in conflict, confounding our ability to pick out the central conspiracies.

    this also reminds me of first millennium indian philosophers dharmakirti and dignaga, who conjectured that we can only conceptualize in dichotomies, and we categorize by negating what things are not. therefore we’re unable perhaps to think in continuums, instead thinking in terms of collections of negations of qualities or negations of concepts to pigeon hole cognition. this idea, “apoha” in sanskrit, seems to imply there is a limit to our ability to think in complex sets and that we greatly prefer thinking in binary terms: “it is or it isn’t”. then later Buddhist scholars I believe used this characterization of cognition to describe enlightenment as when one sees directly this habit of conceptualizing by negation and thereby thoroughly realizing the limitation of one’s grasping to conceptualization as reality – in other words confusing conceptual understanding as ontological truth – and overcoming that mistake of confusing them.

  3. #3 Tony
    August 23, 2008

    So is there any neuroscientific reason why we might engender numbers? For example, to me, 1 has always been more male, 2 female, 3-5 male, 6, female, 7, male, 8-9 female. It’s just a quirk, one that amuses me, and I’ve talked with others who also do this. Is it common?

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