On Growing Up Right-Brained

Equations.1I was born without a left brain. Well, maybe a tiny rudimentary piece of left-ish cortex is in there. Even if the whole left brain/right brain thing is indeed a myth, all I can say is this: My brain doesn’t do the left-brain stuff. Numbers, algebra, equations, calculations, detail. Digits.

This is not to plead total incompetence. My checkbook is balanced, and I can figure tips and keep a very proper ledger of business income and outgo for tax purposes. For that matter, I did my own taxes for some time before marrying Mr. Left/Right Brain 25 years ago and succumbing to the hypnotically attractive suggestion that he’d be glad to do everything financial or mathematical for the happily ever after – which has worked out just fine.

But digital issues have bedeviled me for as far back as I can remember. In the very olden days of long road trips without car radios, a favorite family entertainment for my parents and three older sisters was “Rapid Calculations.” My father would call out numbers, as in “Start with 2. Add 4. Multiply by 6. Subtract 3. Add 17. Divide by . . .” You get the picture. My mother would determine when the game ended and everyone would write down a figure on a piece of paper to see who got the right answer. I would usually still be worrying with 36 minus three.

When I was in high school, the “dumb blond” thing was everywhere in the land and I ferociously tried not to fuel that fire. But connections with my inner left brain regularly eluded me. I blame some of it on the high school days themselves. At my beloved Henry Clay High School in beautiful downtown Ashland, Virginia, I, along with the 39 other members of the Class of ’49, hit eighth grade at a time when the school board couldn’t seem to find a math teacher. So they brought in Mac Simpson, stodgy but brainy son of the academic dean of the nearby college and a student there himself at the time. I had Mac for Algebra I and II, and maybe something else, if I ever got any farther – it’s a hazy memory. My incomprehension of basic math was utterly incomprehensible to Mac. Everything made such perfect sense to him that he was unable to back up to when that sense-making began. Thus without any grasp of the whole x-over-y thing as I launched myself into the world, my left brain simply went dark.poodle skirts

(I did get even, somewhat, by later dating Mac once or twice when poodle skirts were all the rage. The skirts were made out of two square yards of felt. I would agree to go to a movie, after which he would come to the house, calculate and draw the diameters of the two circles – waist and hemline – and then I’d serve him a cup of hot chocolate and say good night.)

Acknowledgment of my lifelong left-brain struggles formed the basis of my signing up, all these decades later, to volunteer for a recent program at the Commonwealth Club featuring Keith Devlin of Stanford University’s H-STAR Institute. Devlin is also President of BrainQuake, NPR’s “Math Guy,” and author of Finding Fibonacci. That last stirred something buried deep within my cerebral cortex. Fibonacci, a distant voice squeeked! The Fibonacci Sequence! Something about rabbits and multiplication! It was wonderfully comforting to know I retained a connection to the Logical Leftbrain.

Ah, to have drawn Fibonacci for Algebra I.

I might have started with Liber Abbaci (The Book of Calculation,) which introduced the western world to basic math – at a level designed for ordinary people to understand. Devlin explains that Fibonacci (whose official name was Leonardo of Pisa but there was that other Leonardo) went with his merchant father to North Africa, where trade with the far east had led to calculating prices with beads (think abacus,) something far more efficient that using fingers as was the custom in Italy. Fibonacci eventually went back home, translated the Arabic figurings into Roman numerals, wrote a bunch of books and started the whole modern arithmetic thing.

Keith Devlin 8.10.17
Keith Devlin at the Commonwealth Club

Devlin’s story of uncovering Fibonacci’s life and work through obscure library archives across Italy and elsewhere makes for a fascinating book, and his rapid-fire presentation was a treat – until the insertion of equations into his talk became necessary. Having started out on a level playing field with an historical narrative, once the numbers started popping up on the screen I began to feel again the old “Rapid Calculation” angst about being the only person in the audience still struggling to add 17.

And then Devlin tossed this bubble-popping dart: Fibonacci did not invent the Fibonacci numbers.  My dimly remembered connection to the brainy lefts? Somebody else came up with that “Fibonacci Sequence.”

What’s a Right Brain to do?


  1. So sorry, Fran. Your math anxiety must be like my utter lack of motor coordination. As my father once said, I would look in one direction and walk in another. My middle daughter has the same problem. And when a baseball came toward me, I would close my eyes and swing wildly. Needless to say, I was always the child last chosen for any pick-up baseball team.
    And I had a bad start with addition in the third grade. Same sort of thing as you. We third graders were “taught” addition by the fourth graders in an over-crowded grade-school classroom. Luckily for me, I was elected “secretary” of our bowling league as a junior in high-school. The main job was to add up all the scores and do averages. That job cured me of counting on my fingers while adding figures.
    Lots more stories around the math business, but with an engineer father, I couldn’t avoid the math. I ended up enjoying it a lot – even sometimes doing math for fun.

  2. I listened to the lecture on my podcast. Very interesting.

    From: Fran Moreland Johns Date: Friday, August 25, 2017 10:35 AM To: proteanpress@gmail.com Subject: [New post] On Growing Up Right-Brained Fran Johns posted: “I was born without a left brain. Well, maybe a tiny rudimentary piece of left-ish cortex is in there. Even if the whole left brain/right brain thing is indeed a myth, all I can say is this: My brain doesn’t do the left-brain stuff. Numbers, algebra, equat”

  3. Delightful to read and reassuring as well. As a kid I never got anywhere with math other than to marvel at the symbols. No one ever thought that was worth discussing. It wasn’t until I was in a PhD program that I met people who wanted to talk about math symbols and their history.

  4. Oh my, how you have described me! By 1946 when I entered Henry Clay High School, the board had hired Phyllis Black, later Andrews, fresh out of UVA, to teach us algebra, geometry, and trig. She was a good teacher, very strict but fair, and tried her very best to help me, but alas, a lost cause. Until her death a couple of years ago, we were bridge playing buddies and good friends. She always tried to make me feel better about my poor performance in her class and never seemed to accept the fact that I never did, or will, understand why it is necessary to inject a or b or x or y into a math problem. I knew I wanted to attend Mary Washington College and their catalogue clearly stated that two years of high school math was sufficient to meet their entrance requirements. Since 1948 when I completed my last math class, I feel confident to state that I have never used algebra in my daily life, and I have no plans to use it for the remainder of my days! I am very pleased to report that I have children and grandchildren that excel in higher math functioning and I always praise them for their ability and assure them that I take absolutely no genetic credit for their skill.

    I hope you are well and enjoying life! Hugs, Carlene

    Sent from my iPad


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