Inside the Mind of a Prodigy: Neelakantha Bhanu Prakash on Math, Cognition, and the Human Brain
Having built a name for himself by doing complex mathematical calculations – with ease and 100% accuracy – Neelakantha Bhanu Prakash is the world’s fastest human calculator. He holds 4 world records and 50 Limca records, and videos strewn across the internet show him engaged in mental calculation that occurs faster than he can articulate. Now a final year student at St. Stephen’s Department of Mathematics, he’s on a mission to change the way we look at numbers.
He processes numbers approximately 10 times faster than the average human, and the prodigy is convinced that arithmetic ability and numeracy are intrinsically linked to cognitive efficiency. Bhanu is on a mission to amplify human brain efficiency, and has founded 3 startups that revolve around the same. Exploring Infinities, one of his education startups, trains students and professionals in cognitive speed and mental ability by teaching them unorthodox ways of looking at numbers and harnessing the infinite potential of the human brain. His team has collaborated with over 20 private and government schools, colleges, and corporates.
Bhanu recently gave Gifted India permission to probe into his personal life, alongside an interview on his unique science of thought, cognition, and numeracy.
I ask him to “bear it all” – to give us insight into the parts of his life that speeches, interviews, and newspaper articles seldom cover. He begins by talking about the peculiar way in which he perceives the world.
“I’ve spent a lot of time around numbers and calculation. Because of this, a lot of who I am today – how I function, take decisions, and approach real-world problems – exists in an analytical and mathematical framework. A stat analysis on my practice schedules reveals that I’ve processed 1.3 crore numbers to date. In terms of time, that’s a full 4 months – 24 hours, 30 days, 4 months.
I think through a numerical lens that evaluates and puts number tags on everything around me. For example, if I am assessing an interpersonal relationship with someone and they say something that makes me happy, I think, “This person is a +34 in my head”. Constructions of how I break down emotions and stress, too, are intertwined with mathematical thinking.”
He reminisces about performing a ‘trick’ on stage, calculating numbers up to 150 digits and simultaneously giving a speech about parallel thinking.
“This has also helped me understand how to multitask – to look at independent phenomena, draw a line, process them separately, and gauge their relationship. The ability to do so, and to find patterns in everything, gives me a much wider perspective on life.”
Eager to know more about Bhanu’s trajectory from a shy child to a final year student at Delhi University’s coveted St. Stephen’s College, I bring up mental health – something that conversations about giftedness and a prodigious identity are incomplete without. Bhanu answers enthusiastically, saying he’s been meaning to talk about the same. He starts with his childhood.
“I was labeled as a prodigy when I was a young child. At that age, the word was daunting, and I was unable to manage it.
I was 13 when I won the international speed arithmetic championships, becoming one of the fastest human calculators in the world and having the global limelight shone on me. On one hand, I was overwhelmed by people’s positive reactions. On the other, their expectations of me rose. I was giving my 10th grade boards at the time. Though formal tests and arithmetic where things my brain navigated in two different ways, I felt obliged to score marks and prove my abilities in subjects that weren’t my forte, consistently.
I think I’m a more dynamic person right now, but back then, I was just a speedy calculator. I performed awe-inspiring feats and amazed everybody, but on the inside, I was unsure of what to do next – I didn’t know how to apply my competence, and this scared me.
Pressure presented itself in several forms over the years. At 14, I sat for an interview with a major newspaper that was later titled: ‘Ramanujan in the making?’. I had spoken about my love for analytic number theory – whatever little bit of it I knew at that age. I didn’t author the catchy title, and didn’t prescribe by or care for it. Soon, however, professors from across the country messaged me, interrogating me on how I could have possibly worked on analytic number theory – calling me a false prodigy, questioning the usage of Ramanujan in the title. I was just a kid who enjoyed math – I had never asked for the controversial comparison. I removed the article from everywhere, not letting anyone see it. I still don’t have the courage to put it across to anyone. Since then, I’ve been conservative about how I present myself around social media. I don’t want backlash. There have been lots of opportunities that my family and I have foregone. Being in the limelight has been great, but I now feel like I’ve been over-glorified.
In 11th and 12th grade, I was in the rat race to get into a good college, just like everyone else. I was also, however, very interested in abstract math and calculation. I was selected to be the Indian representative at the mental calculation world cup, and as the youngest member there, I felt obligated to justify my presence – at both the world cup and a good college. I ended up barely allowing myself time for anything else – friends, life, freedom, being a teenager – anything beyond preparation, really. It took me a lot of time to understand that I am not obligated to specialize in everything I explore.
A lot of my effort then went into understanding how regular math works, and how it’s related to arithmetic, psychology, and other parameters. The expectations around me increased, but so did the areas of interest I found myself exploring. I eventually ended up venturing deeper into mathematics and breaking a few world records.
At 16, I asked myself – I do calculations better than everyone else, but is this important to me simply because the validation I get from others makes me feel better about myself?
That’s when I developed a bad case of imposter syndrome. The effort I put into my work was genuine, but I constantly told myself I was overhyped and overvalued. I heard a phrase that has stuck with me: “Child prodigies remain child prodigies.” People who do great as children latch onto that. Whatever they do – in terms of skills, talents, abilities – is overshadowed the fact that they’re doing it at a young age. There’s nothing beyond it. That affected me.”
Bhanu shifts his focus to the present.
“Today, I feel the same, and have the same struggles. Anxiety peaks during daily chores, and seeps into the decisions I make about helping myself and distributing my energy through the day. My one boon – the ability to analyze things from all perspectives – becomes a bane. I overthink the trivial and the important. My analytical model of thought fuels my trajectory right into the depths of anxiety.
I also face a barrier in social situations. When I try to push beyond my close, intimate circles, I’m introduced as Bhanu – the fastest human calculator in the world. It’s assumed that I’m cocky and unfriendly. The smallest of taunts, then, pile up and become significant. One of the biggest shifts in the last 5 years or so, in fact, has been in the people I surround myself with. People around you respond to your success differently. Some people stopped acquainting themselves with me, because they felt lesser than. That’s a difficult thing to cope with.”
I reflect on my reading of gifted and prodigious children and let my thoughts interrupt his. We speak about how we often forget that child prodigies are still children, and that they grow up to be adolescents – as volatile, anxious, and confused as all others. One of the many challenges giftedness professionals, and surely the media face, is separating the child from their prodigy – but remembering at the same time that their skills and abilities are an intrinsic part of them.
Unlike my lazily wandering thoughts, speed dominates Bhanu’s every expression – his talking is much like his calculations, articulation struggling to keep up with brain.
He tells me that he now wants to share something important to him with Gifted India’s readers – a lesson on cognitive barriers. Bhanu’s research revolves around how the human brain works, and how it can work better – and he has unique ideas up his sleeve. I ask him to elaborate.
“A cognitive barrier is something that makes you tell yourself, consciously or subconsciously: ‘I can’t imagine myself doing this.’ It’s when you can’t imagine yourself being as quick, efficient, accurate – as good – as you want to be, at any task which makes you use your grey matter.
Cognitive barriers are all around us. For example, there may be a book that you want to finish in a couple of hours. You might think you are unable to, because you are slow at comprehension and processing. That’s a barrier. Barriers include ‘tangible’ things like calculation, reading, and memory, and also intangibles, like the perception of how productive you can be at a point of time, or our personal ideas of ‘maximum’ and ‘optimum’ levels of functioning.
This supposed optimum point is a barrier – you’re on one side of it. Having drawn it around you, you’ve convinced yourself that you can’t venture beyond it.
How do you break through a cognitive barrier? Half your work is done when you realize that the barrier exists. The other half is understanding that you’re capable of doing much more than you think you are doing. Identifying the cognitive barriers which you think you want to push is a great way of exploring yourself and your true capabilities, which can be enhanced through a structured approach and practice. There’s hidden potential in everyone, and you can grow into yours.
You need to find your ‘impossibles’ – once you define them, you can hit against them and break them. This can be done through a structural practice mechanism. The psychological perceptions of a lot of soft ideologies – working memory, parallel and partition though, systemic thinking – can be challenged. Set your targets and use creativity to break them. This makes you feel like you’re superhuman – and that’s something that everyone needs to feel, to understand that they can function beyond their cognitive barriers.”
I ask him how the non-gifted individuals of the world like me – not blessed with super-efficient white matter tracts – can break our barriers. He responds in two parts.
“First, quantify your barrier and gauge how far you are from it. Identify the closest struggle you have. Don’t think miles ahead. If you want to memorize 30 items and can only do 5, the immediate cognitive barrier that you set up should be a 15. Once you reach that, you’ll know you can reach a 30 – and perhaps, a straight 100.
Second, find your method. What method are you using to break your barrier? Are you approaching it strategically? Brute force practice does not work. Practice, yes, but with an entirely different mindset every time you do. Experiment and play around. Add other elements and even distractions to your practice. Create challenges for yourself, innovate, and push yourself. Look into how other people are doing what you want to do. Try and look at the same problem from several different angles.”
I ask him to tell me about a time in his life he has broken a cognitive barrier. He talks about life post-breaking world records.
“Once I did it, I asked myself – Bhanu, what’s one thing that you consider impossible for yourself, and how can you push yourself to achieve it?
I saw videos of ‘The Fastest Human Calculator’ – Scott Flansburg, Professor at the University of Arizona – someone I consider an idol – who could calculate upto 10 numbers per second. I couldn’t, and so took this up as a challenge, working on trying to break his ‘mental speed barrier’ for the next one year. I decided that the day I’d be able to perform the same feat, I’d have pushed my own cognitive barrier – out of my current zone, and into the sphere where the magic happens.
When all else failed and I couldn’t move beyond the 9 or 10 number mark, I asked myself: what else can I do? That’s when I got experimental – I did absurd stuff. I listened to music while calculating. I watched television, to see if that would help. Eventually, it was a Spanish pop song (not Despacito!) that led me to break the mental speed barrier and calculate at 11 numbers per second, because its 4-beat tune was similar to how I paced myself while calculating.
I currently hold a world record for calculating 12 numbers per second. In this quest, I’ve realized that there’s lots more to calculation than we think. I’ve experimented with my own cognitive barriers. I’ve achieved a number of things – but it wasn’t when I won that I felt successful. It was when I identified and breached my own barrier.
At one point, I wanted to win a ‘Man vs. Machine’ event, calculating faster than a calculator. I attempted – and I failed. The next time too, I failed. The third time, I failed. And the next – I won.”
“As a child, I was shy, and bad at calculation”, he says, surprising me. “My mother still shows me videos of myself narrating the times 2 table wrong. I’m saying this because I want to prove that effort can translate into tangible things. Breaking a cognitive barrier isn’t something that’s only possible when attempted by gifted people – you can do it too.”
Breaking cognitive barriers is only one of the tasks Bhanu wants his students and Gifted India’s readers to engage in. He then moves on to the power of multitasking. He claims that arithmetic can be a powerful tool to build a multitasking brain, and goes on to explain the same.
“There are several instances in life wherein you are supposed to administer two different thoughts, or perform two different mental tasks, at the same time. You may give one 70% of your attention, and the other, 30%. In doing this, efficiency decreases. An efficient multitasker, instead, is someone who doesn’t necessarily have to be a 100-100 on both sides, but can tweak around and distinguish between the two – by being aware of the distribution of thought on both sides, and being able to change it.
Why math? Because arithmetic precision is quantifiable. You can accurately quantify how well you’re allowing yourself to multitask. For example, though you won’t ever actually need to do calculations in your head while you talk to people, this is a good exercise because you learn to multitask. You learn how to work in binaries. With arithmetic calculations, you’re either correct, or you’re not. This is a good way of evaluating your multitasking because it makes you aware of how present you are at one task while engaged in the other. It’s a verification mechanism that creates a metric revolving around how you employ multitasking at large.
A simple exercise you can try is: If you’re in a car and you’re reading a book, you can count the buses that pass by as you read. In doing this, you create a brain canvas and split it into two independent things. You train your brain to go back and forth from one thought to another. Your thoughts become more agile as you move from one idea to another.”
As someone who struggles with mindfulness – something that is difficult to incorporate while meditating or making a concentrated effort, let alone in day-to-day activities – I question Bhanu about why anyone should engage in mental multitasking.
“The benefits of being a multitasker are many. Deciphering your mind canvas will eventually help you analyze your thoughts, the way you think, and process information in a more efficient manner. It will help you exercise your brain and turn you into someone who is mindful, aware, and capable of having a multidimensional approach to problems.
A distraction is an unnecessary intervention into a thought. If you’re able to administer two thoughts independently, you can become more focused and remove the concept of a distraction. Bringing two ideas together, instead of only concentrating on one thing at a time, is how our brains intuitively work. This association, which usually helps us, is sometimes the root cause of several cognitive troubles. Multitasking helps you separate these thoughts and ideas. If you can do it, you can train your brain to work more efficiently.
At the end of the day, mental multitasking will help you become a faster, clearer, better thinker.”
I ask Bhanu about the other interesting, sometimes confusing ways in which he trains his brain to work better.
He talks about how he visualizes what he thinks, when he thinks. He builds a mind canvas: visualizing his thoughts and segregating them. He asks himself: how near or distant are they from each other? How near or distant do I want them to be? How independent are my thoughts, how closely are they related? How similar are they, how different are they? He plays with his thoughts, trying to understand how cognition impacts the way we perceive the world – and dives headfirst into trying to challenge it.
He talks about his research on arithmetic and cognitive abilities. Bhanu is convinced that arithmetic strengthens one’s cognitive abilities. These efficient abilities, then, can be used to further strengthen arithmetic ability. He says this doesn’t have to be higher level math – basic arithmetic will do.
“Inculcate a calculation routine into your daily life”, he says, as he tells me he’s been calculating the seconds he’s been talking to me. “Develop a mental sense of numbers while you’re engaged in a physical or mental task. It makes you explore things that you’re not comfortable with.
Also, practice mindfulness. If you’re going to a park, notice the colour of the grass. Count the tiles. Find patterns. This makes you explorative, opens up your mind, puts you in touch with your subconscious mind. Your physical senses connect data and make sense of it when your conscious mind doesn’t. You train your mind to actualize the vast potential it has – far beyond what you think it’s capable of. Children do this all the time, and we have a lot to learn from how they use their minds.”
He talks about Project Infinity. Through it, he wants to holistically develop students’ senses and improve their cognitive abilities related to parameters of working memory, computational thinking, visualization, brain rhythm, reflex, sensory precision, and time perception. He wants to teach people how to build a Models of Mind Canvas, use color strategies, and incorporate speed calculation techniques. He believes that the unorthodox way of looking at numbers will teach people how to "turn on the computer in the brain" – something he is renowned for.
He says, “Every human has the potential to become aware and hone this art, leading to great effectiveness in their performance at various levels of personal as well as professional lives.”
I thank Bhanu for his suggestions, and ask him one last question from GI’s side: Gifted India’s readership consists of educators, stakeholders, parents, and students. What’s one message that you would like to convey to them?
He says, “We look at arithmetic as just a stepping stone towards learning higher math, which may or may not ever be relevant to our lives. Instead, we need to start looking at it from the perspective that it’s going to make you a better thinker – on a large-scale, policy level. This will change the ways in which you think.
My story is just one perspective. I notice a correlation between the ability to be good at arithmetic and the ability to find patterns, ace competitive exams, and navigate any sort of real-world problem. There are certain cognitive barriers that are broken when you allow yourself to explore your cognitive potential. This is why I think arithmetic should be mandatory. Basic numeracy is important.
What I’m trying to say it, being able to do this at the bare minimum is something I want to see an entire generation become capable of – and I’m on a mission to make it happen.”
Finally, I tell Bhanu that one of GI’s readers – a math student from Columbia University, fears the subject, and feels like an impostor. Her question to him is simple: Why?
Bhanu laughs and says he doesn’t want to sound like a ‘big old dad’ talking about the education system in which she grew up – but that it is, after all, the root of the problem.
“The system is obsessed with precision. The way it’s built, the way mathematics is evaluated, everything is about being precise. And the thing is, mathematics doesn’t only involve precision – it involves messing up sometimes.
Further, a lot of emphasis is given to solutions, and not the several creative methods that one can explore to arrive at the solution. We also forget to tell students the simple ‘why’ or ‘why not’ of why we find answers the way we do.
People think math is a streamlined process. It’s not. Math is all about independence and creativity. However, instead of encouraging these things, we accumulate phobia. It becomes bigger and bigger. According to the education system, a wrong answer is a big, bad thing – but math requires exploration and fun. It needs to be relatable.
How do we fix it? It’s simple. Contextualize math for kids. Tell them – “you can think better because of math – or even change the world”. Allow them to explore. They’ll be fascinated and invested for life.”
Neelakantha Bhanu Prakash is currently in the final year of his Bachelor's degree at the Department of Mathematics at St. Stephen's College, University of Delhi. He is the Founder and Managing Director at Exploring Infinities, an initiative that trains students and corporates in speed and mental ability. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @neelakanthabhanu on Instagram. To reach Exploring Infinities, call +916300173474.