This week I was privileged to see Scott Flansburg in action. He visited TCS and entertained a huge audience of staff while demonstrating his calculative ability.
He began with a few warm-up activities. How quickly can you add up a set of four two-digit numbers? Try this:
A human calculator
Scott can give you the answer to the above sum quicker than you can read the first number. He can do complicated calculations, with huge numbers, that would challenge anything you, I or an expert accountant could do with a calculator.
He calculates at lightning speed and very rarely makes a mistake.
And he’s proved it. He holds the world record for mental calculating.
Scott is an ordinary guy with extraordinary mental abilities. No slouch, he uses his smooth, motivational manner and enthusiasm for numbers – mathletics he calls it – to inspire and motivate young learners. At the moment he is touring schools in New Zealand doing just that.
Fascinating his audiences by demonstrating patterns in numbers and in the properties and qualities of the array of single digits 0 through to 9, he is number crunching his way across the world, engaging young learners in taking an interest in Mathematics.
He believes that there is nothing necessarily unique in the way his mind works – anyone can learn to use their mind the way he does. What makes Scott different from you or me? He explained a few of the differences in the ways he thinks when calculating.
Basically he doesn’t use the memorised routines that are normally part of mental arithmetic. Times tables and addition tables assist us till situations arise where the tables run out. Beyond those, we resort to cumbersome hierarchical computational processes.
Memorising is limiting
Scott says that using memory in the traditional way for doing these manipulations is severely limiting.
The ‘carrying figure’ and all that’s associated with it when adding lists of numbers is another aspect that Scott thinks slows you down. This is mainly to do with speed, accuracy and the way the mind works. With adding figures, he advocates toting columns of digits from the top. Starting from the left-hand column and moving right is more facile than the traditional right-column-first approach.
His ability is not unique, but his prowess of speed and accuracy puts him in a distinct position among many who demonstrate similar mental capabilities.
Plainly, Scott demonstrates the power of the brain to perform seemingly impossible and colossal computational activities, almost effortlessly, if used in special ways. And guess what - he doesn't multi-task when he's calculating!
If there is a metaphor, I suggest the speed, agility and accuracy of the touch-typist who looks neither at the screen nor the keyboard, against the two-finger typist who looks down searching for the letters and aiming at the keys – that would be the level of my mental arithmetic.
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