Redux: The Compulsion to Count



Back in 2012, I wrote about my compulsive counting habit. I’m revisiting it now, in hopes of collecting stories from other counters. If you count too, I’d love to hear about it. Leave me a comment.
For as long as I can remember, I have counted. If I’m on a train I might count the electric lines we pass or the rows in my car or the number of windows on each side of the aisle. When I’m bicycling, I count pedal strokes. It’s not something I do deliberately; I’ll just suddenly catch myself doing it. It feels like my mind doodling.

I’d never really thought about it, until once, years ago, my aunt Sandy, my mother and I were driving by a string of power lines on the Kansas prairie and somehow Sandy mentioned that she’d been counting the power lines. Big deal, I thought. Doesn’t everybody do that? Mom didn’t know what the hell we were talking about.

My dad does though. As I was writing this just now, I called him and asked, “Dad, do you count?” He knew immediately what I meant. He does it just like I do, and he says that his mom, my grandma Friesen, counted too. So did her dad, my great-grandpa Neufeld. “It has no purpose, I’ve just always done it,” Dad says.

Lines bikeAs I recall, Sandy and I counted differently. She counted like this, “one, two, three, four…” while my count went, “two, four, six, eight.” She knew the exact number of power poles we’d passed since she had started counting. I was mentally arranging them into groups, and was concerned only with the number of poles in a given section, not the running total.

My counting isn’t about quantifying numbers—it’s about observing patterns. I seek symmetry and motifs–pairs of lines on each side of the power line, a fence line that’s divided into segments of four. My brain instinctively looks for these patterns and counts them as a way of finding order. I rarely keep a tally. I don’t count that there are 240 telephone poles, I count that there are three sets of four between county roads. Then I count that the next section also has three sets of four. If you ask me an hour later what I’d counted, I’d have to think for a moment.

The picture window in my office has little farmhouse-style cross hatches in it, and they divide each side of the window into eight rectangles. Sometimes when I’m stuck on writing or just sitting on the couch daydreaming or talking on the phone, my mind will count the rectangles. There are two, four, six eight, going up. And two, four, six, eight down. Four across. I’ll count them diagonally and up and down. I have worked from this office for more than seven years. The number of rectangles on my office window has never changed, and yet I still catch myself counting them nearly every day.

I am not an OCD kind of person, and it doesn’t matter to me if my counts are accurate. My counting doesn’t feel like touching the light switch again to make sure it’s turned off; it feels more like tapping my foot or twiddling my thumbs. I do it during drawn-out conference calls and road trips, but never during an interview. If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s a way to keep my mind occupied when it’s not sufficiently engaged in something else.

My habit does require a kind of release though. When I count stairs (always), I count them whichever way makes them even. If it comes out odd on the first flight, I’ll count the landing or the floor as a step to even it out. If I’m in a bathroom and the tiles on the floor run out the seventh time the tile pattern repeats, it’s somehow dissatisfying–I want it to go to eight or stop at six, and I’ll look for something extra to throw into the count to make the numbers work out the way I want. Though I prefer even numbers, my mind also finds satisfaction in patterns of three. I don’t like seven, but 21 is pleasing.

The volume setting on our car radio is numbered. I will set the volume to 10 or 12, but never to 15 or 17. If my husband turns it to a number I don’t like, I’ll reach over and adjust it to a more pleasing number. I can’t really explain why I like 13 but not 15. I especially dislike seven and 27, but I like 23 and I can’t tell you why.

I’ve wondered whether my relationship with numbers represents some kind of synesthesia, but I don’t associate numbers with colors or sounds, though my mind does automatically produce a kind of intuitive number form–a distinct spatial map of where particular numbers belong–but I find this mind map difficult to describe. It feels automatic, and when I try to explain what it looks like or how it works I become disoriented, in the same way I do when I try to give someone directions to a familiar place. I know where the right turn is, but it’s automatic for me, and if I try to articulate whether it’s before or after the red house, I suddenly lose all sense of direction. I know the route in a spatial sort of way, and it’s difficult to turn this intuitive map into a verbal one.

Am I thinking purely mathematically when I count? I’m not sure, but I’ve noticed that I think of numbers a little differently in others languages. I don’t like seven in English, but when I’m counting in Italian, I like sette very much. I don’t like 12 in German, but I like 11 in all three languages. And I can’t explain any of this.


Photo credits:

Red train and poles by SP8254 via Flickr.

Cyclist and power lines by Ruth Friesen.


Share Button

8 thoughts on “Redux: The Compulsion to Count

  1. Oooh, the volume setting. It is only since I retired that I find myself using odd-numbered settings. It’s like a statement of freedom, maybe even a small rebellion. Still, I gravitate to odd multiples of five…

  2. I count but I’ve not thought about it until I saw your tweet and read this blog post. I’ve had OCD tendendcies and they were pretty bad when I was younger; but counting doesn’t feel the same as that. I don’t ‘have’ to do it, I just do it without any stress associated.

  3. I’ve been a counter for as long as I can remember. For me it’s not things, it’s words. When I’m watching a movie or t.v., I’ll find myself counting the words of dialog for a particular character. Like you, I don’t worry so much about the absolute number as the multiples. I like it when it comes out in even fives, and even more when it comes out in even tens. Sometimes I tap my fingers as I count, tracking one character’s dialog on one hand and another character’s dialog on the other. I do it when I’m reading sometimes, too. I don’t do it when I’m having a conversation with an actual person.

    For years, I never mentioned it to anyone. I thought it was something weird that only I did. Then my mother told me that she was reading a mystery novel in which one of the clues to the crime was that a pearl was missing out of a necklace — something that one of the characters noticed because she compulsively counted things. My mother commented that she thought she was the only one who did that! Although I do have color grapheme synesthesia (where letters and numbers have color), my mother is not a synesthete. Her sister was, though, so maybe the two traits both run in families? Some quirk of the way our brains are wired?

  4. I count and if I already know the eventual total of what I’m counting, for example telephone poles on a familiar route, I figure the fractional achievement. On a 30-telephone route the poles are 1/30, 1/15, 1/10, 2/15, 1/6, 1/5, 7/30, etc. I’ve been doing this ever since I can remember. When I was little I’d divide the food on my plate into bites and then count them this way.

  5. I only do this when I have something on my mind that I don’t want to think about. Then I often find myself looking for numbers and number patterns in my surroundings. Lamppost I’ve passed, the number of tiles on the side-walk but also looking for ‘nice’ licence plates. Like you, I can’t really express what makes a certain number combination ‘nice’, it just looks pleasing to my eyes.
    Even though I can laugh about this odd quirk of my mind, it _is_ keeping me from confronting things I’d rather avoid, so…..

  6. I have been a counter all my life. While we were sitting on a park bench in Boston, my wife noticed me looking intently at the nearby intersection. After a few minutes she asked what I was doing. “Timing the traffic and pedestrian signals,” I replied. I can pretty accurately time events without using a watch, a skill developed playing the violin and french horn. Like you, I count steps, telephone poles and intervals between groups of things. Perhaps my favorite counting activity is the number of cars in a freight train, when I often sort the number by type of car. As a forest scientist, I do a lot of counting for professional reasons. I never realized until reading your column that a lot of people count. Thank you!

  7. Great article! I am glad there are others out there who count and I am not the only strange person in the room! My counting is slightly different though. I like to estimate rather than count. In the men’s toilet, while my body is otherwise occupied but not my brain, I will estimate the number of tiles it took to make this bathroom. When I see a crowd, I will estimate how many people are in it by maybe counting how many people make up the radius and then square the number and multiply by 3.1. Why do I get the higher frequency AM stations and not the lower ones? Maybe it is because the spacing between the floors corresponds to the wavelength in the middle of the band. So I estimate the space between floors. How many people are waiting in the boarding area of an airplane? If I am in traffic at a stop light, I will count the number of seconds between the green light and when I move and divide by an estimate of the number of cars in front of me to get an “idiot” estimate on how slow it takes these people in (Texas, California, Chile, whatever) to get moving. And so on.

    I cannot turn this off except with more than a few glasses of wine. How often does the speaker say “Uhh…” What is the frequency between coughs of the jerk 5 rows back who is ruining this symphony?

  8. Nick, I just wish I had the brain power that you’re using on these small countings. It would quadruple the power I’ve already got. Can you send it along, please?

Comments are closed.

Categorized in: Christie, Mind/Brain, Miscellaneous

Tags: ,