Day 512: Calculators… Made From Human Flesh!!!

originally published May 26, 2013

In my household, my memory skills are legendary. I can pull an entire scene of dialog from Star Wars and perform it between our salt and pepper shakers, while my wife watches in awe, questioning her choice of mate. A couple months ago, my fingers successfully air-guitared the entire solo of Phillip Bailey and Phil Collins’ “Easy Lover”, despite my not having heard the song in probably twenty years. Yet at the same time, I forget my phone in the other room, forget we need to buy dog food until five minutes after the store has closed, and forget what day it is on an hourly basis. 

My brain may be defective – albeit in a charming way – but for the most part, it gets me by. I know I’ll never match up to the titans who participate in the Mental Calculation World Cup. This is the Super Bowl for memory athletes, and there’s no doubting that the rigorous training and conditioning these people go through is right on par with the workout regimen of a Joe Flacco or an Ed Reed. 

It hurts my brain a little just thinking about it. Fortunately – and I blame this on my becoming a 3-hour expert on a new topic every day – I’ll probably forget all about this by tomorrow.  

That’s Naofumi Ogasawara, the star of the 2012 World Cup. The competition has taken place every two years since 2004, and has featured some of the most mathletic brains on the planet. The challenges posed in these games are not for the faint of mind. Ogasawara was handed ten ten-digit number additions, which he computed in 191 seconds. He won the race to calculate the square roots of ten six-digit numbers. And he also beat the rest of the pack when handed five ‘surprise’ calculation tasks. 

Other competitions include multiplying eight-digit numbers, calculating cube roots of six-digit numbers, and doing calendar math to pinpoint days of the week of random dates between the years 1600 and 2100. These people are marvels of humanity – I can’t even fathom a brain that operates so swiftly as a math machine. 

Also, I love the headband that Japanese competitors in non-traditional activities wear. Ogasawara reminds me a little of competitive eater and Nathan’s Hot Dog snarfing champion Takeru Kobayashi. 

The fact is, some people are natural mental calculators. True, there are the Rain-Man types, the autistic savants who can look at a spilled thing of candy beans and add the quantity in their heads. But many mental calculators throughout history have been people with normal mental development, who simply happen to have a quirk in their brain structures that allow them to claim total ownership over numbers. Before the advent of calculators and computers, these people could have had a cushy career path, able to work at any research facility around the world. 

American psychologist Michael O’Boyle has looked into the physiology of human calculators, using an MRI scan of their blood flow to see what their head-parts do that ours don’t. What he found was an immensely higher traffic flow of blood to the mathematical quadrants of the brain, far greater than what my heart or yours could squeeze in there. So while skill and practice and even brilliance are all factors, a mental calculator has the internal physical build to make that magic happen. 

One man whose brain must have been syphoning blood from a second heart was Daniel McCartney, one of the most renown human calculators in history. Daniel was legally blind, never married, and lived with relatives for his entire life. Sad as that may sound, Daniel’s gift allowed him to voluntarily re-experience every joyful event of his life. Up until his death in 1887 at the age of 70, someone could ask him the details of any calendar date he had lived through – weather conditions, major events in the news, what he ate and what he did. But he could do more than that. The guy could math the hell out of numbers like nobody’s business. 

Panels upon panels of university math-folk quizzed and queried Daniel several times throughout his life. They asked him things like the cube root of 389,017, which he answered in fifteen seconds (it’s 73), and to take 89 to the sixth power, which him a whopping ten minutes (496,981,290,961, but you probably knew that). 

Willem Klein used his gift on the travelling circus circuit until he was hired by CERN, the European nuclear research group, in 1958. He put his skills to accomplishing what a $10 calculator could do today, but which back then would have required a computer the size of Madison Square Garden. On August 27, 1976, Willem calculated the 73rd root of a 500-digit number in two minutes, forty-three seconds. The Guinness World Record people were impressed enough to put him in the book. 

Willem retired that year also. He lived happily in Amsterdam for another decade, before being stabbed to death in his home. They never found out who did it – someone who really hated math, perhaps? 

And there are more – seriously, these people should be as famous as anyone who broke an historic sports record. 

  • Willis “Willie the Wizard” Dysart did the talk show and game show circuits in the 50’s and 60’s. It takes him less than ten seconds to multiply a pair of nine-digit numbers, probably longer than it would take me to punch those numbers into a calculator. He’s still going strong at 79 in Long Beach, California. 
  • Hans Eberstark, founder of MENSA in Switzerland, spoke fifteen languages. He also once recited 11,944 consecutive digits of pi from memory. He passed away in 2001, hopefully leaving his brain to science. 
  • Thomas “Negro Tom” Fuller was a Virginia slave in the 1700’s, involuntarily plucked from somewhere between modern-day Benin and Liberia. When quizzed at age 70, he calculated how many seconds were in a year and a half – it took him about two minutes. He was asked how many seconds a man who was 70 years, 17 days and 12 hours has lived, Thomas took roughly 90 seconds to come up with the answer. The people quizzing him figured it out on paper, and indicated to Thomas he was off by quite a bit. Thomas pointed out that they’d forgotten about leap years. 

Thomas is clearly an exception, demonstrating that a lack of access to schooling can still result in a mathematically unreal brain. What I find shocking is the lack of women on the list of human calculators. The only one I found was Shakuntala Devi from Bangalore, India. Is there some biological bias for males to be better at mastering these sorts of parlor tricks? Or do women just not feel the need to bother, since we now have the technology to be faster, probably built in to all our phones? 

That’s a question for another day. Maybe I’ll answer it on another day, since I may forget that I’ve already delved into this topic once. Seriously, I’ve got to get this brain checked – it might need to go in for servicing. 

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