Dungeons, Dragons, and Brain Science

by Megan M. on August 11, 2009 · Comments (Blog) |

Last week I spent about an hour working up a spreadsheet to calculate some obscure price vs benefit analysis for a product I buy. Their pricing structure was technically broken, I realized—at least, the way they explained it. I waded gleefully through numbers and equations and dollar signs and came up with a much better attack for them—much simpler for their clients. Of course no one asked me to do it, but when Megan gets something in her head…

Marty looked on in fascination, as I proudly displayed my beautiful spreadsheet—and explained the results. “You should really go back to playing D&D,” he told me. “That’s exactly what makes someone a great D&D player, doing stuff like that.”

I responded by default: “But I don’t like it!” And then I corrected, and explained the following: I like D&D a lot. I like the story part. I like that math part. It’s only when they are put together that I’m not crazy about them.

Thus began a bizarre revelation.

A few months ago in the process of developing one of my many cashflow models, I got in the habit of writing financial stories for Marty and I. They would start in the present and go on for the next several weeks, detailing how much money we had in our accounts now, what invoices I expected to be paid soon, what projects I could pull in to pay bills that would be due later on. I covered alternate scenarios and Plan Bs (and Cs and Ds) and the result was just like a mathematical word problem—but backwards. It was a mathematical word solution.

I loved doing this. I did it for a long time and although it was time consuming, it allowed me to think very clearly and concretely about my finances, which have always seemed a little too complicated for me. (I have a better system now, but at the time, this was quite slick and really doing the job it was meant to do!) In this particular case, Math + English = Fabulousness. There is no doubt in my mind that my thought process functioned particularly smoothly in this way, and still does.

Now, I quit playing D&D because although I loved the math, and I loved the stories… I didn’t like parsing them together. And when I was in school—get this—I hated word problems in math class. I always had trouble wrapping my head around all but the simplest ones, and I could never figure out why they were so hard. I’m a reading-and-writing wiz, and I love algebra, but I can’t do word problems? Argh!

I made my peace with it, of course, but thinking back on it now there is a very strange set of facts. The resulting realization here is that I love words, and I love maths, and I love writing about math (when it suits my purpose). But for some reason I dislike and cannot stomach reading someone else’s writing about math. For some reason, it’s tedious for me to interpret or convert in my head. It’s difficult to parse. I get turned around, somehow. And so, I don’t like it. This is why I don’t play D&D anymore (though maybe I should write it, ha ha).

This blew my mind. What could it mean? In another life, I will be a brain scientist. Surely it’s significant in some way that I love to create words+maths but dislike taking them in. One tiny Math-English Receptor Wrinkle in my brain says, No way, no how! MUTINY!

I’m okay with it, and all. But isn’t it awesomely cool to wonder about?

  • Michael
    Word problems are usually so artificially structured that they get confusing. First you have to apply meta-thinking to parse the Word Problem before you can break it down into the real problem.

    I think it is to get around people not knowing enough math to do the whole thing. More advance math classes have more naturally structured problems.

    Oh, 4e DnD has different math. It is easier to ignore if you want to - but you can be helpful to the DM if you want to (and if they can take the help).
  • Megan M.
    I was always very shallowly involved in D&D. I would go and roll dice and kill things and howl in victory, and I would add my bonuses and things with wild gleeful abandon. But when it came to figuring out how the character was built, I just meh'd on it. Just had no appeal at all. If I could separate the math parts and the story parts, I had a ton of fun. :D

    Do you have to build a character using math stuff with 4e D&D? I wonder if Marty knows about this.

    I think you're right about word problems. I probably will never have to solve that kind of word problem again, ha!

    ....BUT WEIRDLY... it just occurred to me that I must solve all kinds of word problems all the time, without thinking about it. Anything I do with math is inevitably SOME KIND of word problem. Huh.
  • jeremymeyers
    I would read a book about applying storytelling to address business challenges and personal finance.

    I think you should write it, and I'll buy it.
  • sst
    hee hee a good read about Math-English I truly enjoyed the reference to D&D and I always go more into the "roll play" and was truly saddened if my character would die. Now back to this "I dislike and cannot stomach reading someone else’s writing about math". Maybe it is a control thing :-)
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