Earlier this year, Brian Butterworth decided to figure out how many numbers the average person encounters in a day. He picked a Saturday for his self-experiment—as a cognitive neuroscientist and professor emeritus at University College London, Butterworth works with numbers, so a typical weekday wouldn’t have been fair. He went about his day as usual, but kept track of how frequently he saw or heard a number, whether that was a symbol, such as 4 or 5, or a word such as “four” or “five.” He flicked through the newspaper, listened to the radio, popped out for a bit of shopping (taking special note of price tags and car license plates), and then, at last, sat down to calculate a grand total.
“Would you like to take a guess?” he asks me when we speak over Zoom a couple of weeks later. I hazard that it’s well into the hundreds, but admit I’ve never thought about it before. He says: “I reckoned that I experienced about a thousand numbers an hour. A thousand numbers an hour is sixteen thousand numbers a day, is about five or six million a year. . . . That’s an awful lot of numbers.”