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Mental Math: Solving by Color

I call it the LIWS (loose) method: Label, Imprint, Wipe, Stack – It’s like “painting by number”, but the opposite… I did this when I was bored the other day, and found it helped me out a great deal with my ability to solve 3x2x1 math problems in my head. What’s cooler is that I’m certain it will help lots of people do lots of different kind of mental math more effectively.

The idea behind this (and a LOT of work I’m doing right now) is that we have multiple senses, and if we used them together in new, creative ways, we can enhance our ability to do all kinds of mental work. I initially wanted to come up with something like this after reading about Daniel Tammet.  Daniel has synesthesia, which causes him to “experience”, “perceive”, or “sense” numbers as colorful landscapes and graphic images in his mind. When solving complex equations, the landscapes combine to produce the answer, in the form of a rich and complex visual image in his mind’s eye.

I thought, “hey, if it works for him, why not see if it can work to some small extent for the rest of us?” I was never great at math in school, but as I’ve gotten older, I realize that I just never learned it in a way  I could really relate with – a way that uses my own mental resources the most effective way possible. Like most people, I can solve bits of an equation in my head, but I lose track of numbers as I go. They all just get jumbled around in my head, scattered across my mental whiteboard in black and white, with no sense of order. One mistake and I have to start the whole thing over. Using this method, you break out the factors separately and use the colors to imprint across different sections of your brain. This way, if you mess up at some point in the problem, you’ve still got an imprinted “save spot” to go back to, in the form of your last colored product/sum. You’ll see what I mean if you try it out.

So if you solve a part of the equation using this method, you imprint the product in color in your mind’s eye. Focus on the colored number in your mind in whatever form is easiest for you to remember. I like picturing mine as white digits on a colored background. This seems to imprint best for me personally, which brings up an important detail. Use any color scheme that you feel works best for you. I seem to be able to remember this particular pattern best. These colors in this order are easiest for my mind to retain. It’s exactly beefing up the RAM in your computer. Instead of only using the mathematical processing center of your brain, you’re using the graphic, color processing part to hold onto your products as you go.

The method looks something like this, but you can modify as needed for your brain

  1. Label factors Rainbow, Silver, and Gold and IMPRINT to memory
  2. Solve for Rainbow and Silver – Product becomes your new Rainbow
    1. As you solve each set, IMPRINT the colored product in your mind completely, so that it is well in-focus in your mind’s eye. This may take time, but that’s the point. You’re exercising your mind.
    2. After you IMPRINT each colored product, WIPE out every other number you have in your mind. The point of this method is to tag or label products as you come to them and clear everything else out so you reduce mental clutter. You should only have 2 colored factors in your mind at any given time.
    3. After you WIPE out all numbers but your most recent colored product, STACK it onto the next colored product by adding the two. Again, Label, Imprint, etc.
  3. Solve for Rainbow and Gold – Product is final answer

My first problem I attempted, while jotting these notes, took me about 10 minutes. After working on 4 more problems over the course of a day, I got down to 2 minutes, and actually did this while driving and listening to a neuroscience lecture (posted a few days ago on the blog). I’ve shown it to a couple of people, and while it’s not something that just jumps out at you the second you see it, once you start to get the point of the process (label, imprint, wipe, stack), I think it could help a lot of people do more complex math of various kinds in their head.

These are just notes, and I’ll I’ve had time to write down. See if it makes any sense, and if it helps anyone, I’ll actually put some effort into it and produce a simple guide with more detail and such.

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