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Techly Explains: Why are blind people better at math?

There have always been an innumerable amount of studies regarding blindness; how to cure it, what can cause it, and how it affects people. And among all of this research is one particular branch which suggests that blind people are actually more adept at mathematics — and they just might be onto something.

It sounds like something from Marvel’s Daredevil comic series: when Matt Murdock became blind and realised all his other senses had become heightened, did his mathematical prowess also become heightened?

When we are young, a lot of us remember gaining some of our basic mathematical understandings using a wonderfully quaint abacus; but as we got older, the abacus disappeared and was replaced with words on a page and some guy named John inexplicably buying 14 watermelons and no one thought to ask him “why?”

Exchange between maths teacher and student

For people who are either born blind, or have gone blind at an early age, however, that abacus sticks around for a little longer. Numbers never become words on a page. Instead, they tend to remain as tangible objects, something that can be touched and easily comprehended.

Researchers Julie Castronovo and Xavier Seron published a number of papers in 2007 regarding the ‘Impact of blindness and its following experience,’ which found that blind subjects may in fact have better accuracy in numerical processing than their sighted counterparts, and their tactile correlation could be a part of that.

Another of their prevalent theories is that blind people are unable to use things we take for granted, such as basic calculators or a simple pen and paper to ‘show their working,’ as my old math teachers would say — so the entire problem needs to be solved without any sort of visual aid or reminder.

Castronovo and Seron believed that this hindrance is also partially the cause of their advantage, as without these visual aids on which to fall back, the blind have had to compensate by developing a stronger working memory than those with sight.

On top of the enhanced equation solving skills, further research from earlier this year suggests that they also have an edge on geometric mathematics — which makes sense, after all anyone with blindness has an intrinsically different understanding of 3D space to anyone with sight.

This comes back to the abacus and what it represents: pure, unfiltered reality. The blind don’t get tricked by optical illusions or have visually biased interpretations of size and shape, they perceive geometric objects exactly as they are — exactly how they feel.

So if Daredevil ever does decide to give up the life of fighting crime, he could always become the kingpin of maths in the Marvel universe.

Four slides of the 'Daredevil' comic

About the author

Tyler is currently based in Canberra, though he rejects this reality and enjoys immersing himself in games, technology, and comics. You can usually catch him trying to find that last shard/flag/feather.
Twitter: @FinalAlchemist

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