Take the 2-minute tour ×
Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for practitioners, researchers, and students in cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, and psychiatry. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I have heard a number of reports that some mathematical savants associate particular colors with numbers. It got me wondering, if colors are associated with numbers during mathematical teaching, would this improve ability?

For example, if every time I showed my child the number 2, it was colored red, and every time I showed her 3, it was blue, and so on, would she learn arithmatical skills like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division faster?

Further, would it matter which colors were associated with which numbers? Should 5 be purple?

share|improve this question
    
Tangentially related question, definitely not a dupe. –  Josh Gitlin Mar 5 '13 at 5:24
    
Needs clarification as to what you mean by "learn math". This could mean a variety of things, such as "learn the sequence of number names", "learn the association of numerals with number names", "learn how to use counting to assess the cardinality of a set", "memorize arithmetic facts", ... I see no particular reason to think that the effects would be the same for all these skills, so better to focus on what you want her to learn at this moment. –  baixiwei Mar 6 '13 at 16:56
    
@baixiwei, Thanks for the comment. I have edited for clarity. –  AdamRedwine Mar 7 '13 at 13:09
add comment

2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I don't know of research that answers this question directly, but I'm going to guess the answer is no, it wouldn't help, based on the following reasoning.

First, people tend to learn math less well when superfluous visual richness is added. I think adding color to numbers counts as superfluous visual richness.

Brown, M. C., McNeil, N. M., & Glenberg, A. M. (2009). Using concreteness in education: Real problems, potential solutions. Child Development Perspectives, 3(3), 160–164.

Mayer, R. E., Sims, V., & Tajika, H. (1995). A Comparison of How Textbooks Teach Mathematical Problem Solving in Japan and the United States. American Educational Research Journal, 32(2), 443–460.

Second, in general, associating something you want people to recall with a larger number of cues is going to help recall. (Sorry I don't know a citation for this off the top of my head, but I think it's a general principle of information theory.) In this case, the colors and the numerals are both cues for numbers, which should lead to better recall than if you only had the numerals. However, you are looking at learning arithmetic and not learning the number sequence.

Learning numbers MIGHT go faster with this additional cue. However, I'd be concerned whether there might be some negative impact on ability to use numerals once the color cue is removed, as it inevitably will be.

Presenting numbers together with analogue representations of magnitude does aid in learning arithmetic facts:

Booth, J. L., & Siegler, R. S. (2008). Numerical magnitude representations influence arithmetic learning. Child Development, 79(4), 1016–1031.

However, analogue representations of magnitude are a cue that's relevant to the actual meaning of the numbers, while colors are not. I doubt colors would deliver this particular benefit.

With all that said, I haven't considered motivational issues. If children are motivated by brightly colored number blocks, then I'd say go ahead and use them. I doubt that the cognitive effects would be strong one way or the other, so even if negative, they'd probably be outweighed by any motivational benefits.

share|improve this answer
    
Thanks! Sounds like a pretty good answer to me. –  AdamRedwine Mar 8 '13 at 14:13
    
I know that synesthesiacs perform worse in math, but I'm too lazy to look up the research. –  Indolering Mar 11 '13 at 1:13
add comment

I would say it is highly unlikely.

The report that you reference is the savant Daniel Tammet who has performed many impressive mental feats, including holding the European record for most recited digits of pi. He has been popularized in the media in such documentaries as "Brain Man". He claims that he is able to accomplish such mathematical feats because of his synesthesia, which allows him to "see" different numbers as different shapes, sizes, and color. It is worth noting that his ability has also been greeted with skepticism both in pop culture (such as in the best seller Moonwalking with Einstein) and by synesthesia researchers who have studied him personally (Azoulai et al., 2005).

Tammet claims that he sees numbers as shapes, and that to multiply two numbers he sees the shapes "merge" in his head. It's not really clear how you could train someone to do this, if it is possible at all. It is possible that this is just an epiphenomenon, and does not actually help Tammet solve problems.

In fact, associating numbers with colors might actually hurt your performance. Mills et al. (2009) showed that a synesthete performed slower when the numbers in an addition problem were not congruent with her internal perception of them. Thus even if you were able to perform math problems faster, it may only apply when the numbers are congruent with the color-number pairing that you trained on. In the real world, you are most likely to see all numbers in only a single color.

Azoulai, S., Hubbard, E., & Ramachandran, V. S. (2005). Does synesthesia contribute to mathematical savant skills. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 69. PDF

Mills, C. B., Metzger, S. R., Foster, C. A., Valentine-Gresko, M. N., & Ricketts, S. (2009). Development of color-grapheme synesthesia and its effect on mathematical operations. Perception, 38(4), 591. PDF

share|improve this answer
1  
+1 Do you think it would be possible to test one's personal internal perception of numbers by doing addition problems and analyzing the performance? –  draks ... Mar 30 '13 at 23:13
    
@draks... yes, i suspect so-- that is very similar to what Mills et al. (2009) is doing. There are also several standardized methods for diagnosing synesthesia though, so if that's your goal I would start there. I don't recall exactly what those tests ask offhand... –  Jeff Mar 30 '13 at 23:30
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.