Use Your Right Brain To Convert Fahrenheit and Celsius Degrees
Most of us know that different people learn in different ways. For example, some learn best by reading or listening, some by hands-on experience, and some through visual stimulation.
I know that my best learning mode is through visual stimulation. Give me a bar graph or a pie chart, and I'll retain the data it represents, but give me a table of figures and I'll recall almost nothing, even a short time later. And please, don't recite data without giving me something to view at the same time; I guarantee that within a few seconds I'll stop listening while I imagine myself basking in the sun on a white sand beach.
Scientists have found that different abilities and modes of learning can be associated with either the left or the right side of the brain. Simply stated, the left brain modes of learning include sequential, symbolic, and linear (think language and mathematics), while the right brain modes include holistic, concrete, and intuitive learning modes (think visualization and imagination).
Traditional instructional models appeal more to left-brain characteristics, requiring us to read, listen, and interpret symbols. However, some of us "get it" more effectively with models that present information in less linear but more visual and holistic ways.
When it comes to learning to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius and the other way around, visual cues may make the task easier for those who are more right-brain oriented.
How Did Most of Us Learn to Convert Fahrenheit and Celsius?
Through a Mathematical Formula, of Course
When we were taught in school to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius, or the other way around, it was probably through this mathematical formula:
C = F - 32 (5/9)
F = (C x 9/5) + 32
Some of us may also have learned a quick trick, a mental math shortcut, for roughly estimating the conversions by using one-half instead of five-ninths, two instead of nine-fifths, and 30 instead of 32:
C = (F - 30) / 2
F = (C x 2) + 30
Some learners may also have committed the conversions to memory (whether using the precise numbers or their shortcuts) by reading them as a text narrative and then reciting them:
To get Celsius, subtract 30 from the Fahrenheit and then divide by two.
To get Fahrenheit, multiply the Celsius by two and then subtract 30.
Right-brain learners who don’t retain information well by reading it, hearing it, or processing a mathematical formula might have better luck with a visual approach.
The Circular F / C Thermometer
The Vertical F / C Thermometer
A Visual Right-brain Approach to Converting Fahrenheit and Celsius
I’ve been spending a good deal of time in these last months outside on my front porch, looking at the outdoor thermometer (and the rhododendron), trying to will spring into an early arrival. While looking at the thermometer, which displays in both Fahrenheit and Celsius, I got to thinking about friends of mine in countries other than the US, other places such as the Cayman Islands and Belize, where Celsius is used to describe temperature.
The other day, on a Skype conversation, a Canadian friend told me it was a rather nice day, nine degrees Celsius. Well, I knew it wasn’t freezing, because zero Celsius would not necessarily indicate a nice day, but no association with the Fahrenheit equivalent popped into my head fast enough for me to say something like, “Sounds like you don’t need that down parka today.” I really couldn’t grasp a good idea of what kind of temperature she was experiencing fast enough to keep me from feeling, if not uneducated, at least awkward.
One morning shortly thereafter, while out on my front porch ruing winter’s continued presence, it came to me in a moment of inspiration that I didn’t have to remember any formulas or any strings of text. All I had to do was take a mental snapshot of the relationships of numbers as they appeared on the face of my thermometer.
I noticed that between +10 and +100 degrees F, the temperature range I’m most likely to be exposed to in the northeast US where I live, the corresponding Celsius numbers range from -10 to approximately +35. I instantly saw a visual relationship that at once cemented in my mind that my 10-degree F temperature is my Canadian friend’s -10 degree Celsius temperature. Likewise, at the other end of my likely exposure range, my 100 and her 35 now burned themselves into a mental image.
To this visual image I added the equivalents I already knew: My friend’s zero is my +32 (the freezing mark) and her 37 is my 98.6 (human normal body temperature).
Here’s what I see in my mind:
Although I now have a good grip on 10 and -10, 32 and 0, and 98.6 and 37, I’m still quite a way from knowing whether it’s a light sweater day or a tank top and shorts day when I hear the temperature in Celsius. So it’s time to make another mental image. I think about my ideal outdoor day where I can wear jeans, sandals, and a cotton shirt in total comfort. For me, that’s about 70 degrees F. But when it gets to be 80 degrees F, it’s time for shorts and a tank top.
Here is what I now see:
Granted, there are many gaps to fill in, but now I have a mental image that allows me to not feel like an idiot when my Canadian friend says, "OMG, it’s 35 here!" Now I can readily empathize and say, "I hope you're in your shorts and tank top!"
How F / C Conversion-able Are You?
I am American (or from the Cayman Islands or Belize) and I'm as comfortable with Celsius as I am with Fahrenheit.
I am NOT American (nor from the Cayman Islands or Belize) and I'm as comfortable with Fahrenheit as I am with Celsius.
The Visual Approach Illuminates the Math
Another gift presented itself while I was looking for visual cues to estimate Fahrenheit and Celsius conversions. I realized that for every five-degree change in Celsius, there was an approximate ten-degree change in Fahrenheit. This realization helped me fill in the gaps of my mental images. If I hear “30 degrees C” I jump back to the 0 / 32 equivalent burned into my brain cells, quickly compute that there are six fives in 30, so there must be 60 (ten F degrees for every 5 C degrees) Fahrenheit degrees above freezing, and thus I know that the temperature at 30 degrees C is my approximate 90 degrees.
As you've guessed by now, I'd actually come to a formula, based on my front-porch experiences watching temperatures displayed in both C and F, that closely approximates the C = (F - 30) / 2 and F = (C x 2) + 30 estimation calculations I described earlier. The point is that my learning style required that I make visual or holistic sense out of something before I could find a permanent place for it in my mind. Just memorizing a simple pair of formulas would not do.
Don't Have a Thermometer Handy but Need To Know the Temperature?
Here's an unusual way to tell approximate outdoor temperature using a rhododendron shrub:
Give the Right Brain Approach a Try
Right brain, left brain learning theory is far more complex than what I’ve described here. However, I wanted to give you an example of how a right-brain learning process can work should you want to empathize with a friend about weather conditions when both of you live in Fahrenheit / Celsius opposing universes.
In case you are wondering, it took me hours to write this article, but only minutes to establish a working method for converting Fahrenheit and Celsius, once I made the pictures in my mind. With images of icicles, penguins, jeans, tank tops, and oral thermometers at home in my brain, the rest came easily, including the doubling-back to the quick-trick estimating method.
If you've had difficulty making quick conversions from one degree system to another, give the right-brain approach a try. I wonder what kinds of images you'll come up with?
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