The Number Four

The number four is avoided by Far Eastern tetraphobes because it sounds like the word for death in the Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese languages. If I were superstitious, I would more likely consider this number to be lucky, invoking the one-in-ten-thousand four leafed clover as a symbol of good fortune.

The Knot Garden, which embodies a foursquare view of the world that is reflected in its physical manifestation, believes that all worthwhile human activities can be categorised using a four cornered construct representing health, wealth, relationships and creativity. This device helps us to achieve purpose and balance in our lives.

The number four plays a unique role in the man-made world, finding universal expression in the design of buildings and many important types of artefact found in our domestic and business lives, from furniture to books and works of art. The geometry of our lives is dominated by the rectangle – a fascinating phenomenon that we will explore on another occasion.

In architecture we find that rectangles offer stability and structural strength, especially in the vertical plane where gravity is a force to be reckoned with. Rectangles are also practical for arranging rooms in groups and are aesthetically pleasing, especially (some would say) where they incorporate the Golden Ratio phi, approximating to 1.618, often associated with Fibonacci’s intriguing numerical series.

The effectiveness of structures containing four right angles that enhance our viewing experience in the physical world – in the form of windows, picture frames and electronic screens – can be extended to more abstract domains. I tend to adopt a four cornered framework for organising my ideas and representing conceptual models, sometimes building in extra levels to form a hierarchy.

This application of the number four to cognitive exercises is far from accidental. Firstly, it is easy for us to visualise a geometric form that has such ubiquitous and powerful expression in our daily lives. Secondly, squares convey a sense of stability and order, facilitating well organised thought processes. And thirdly there are practical reasons, including inherent limitations on the working memory when handling multiple thoughts, ideas or pieces of information. I feel comfortable working in my head with four items at a time, whereas a limit of three is not enough and five is too many.

Once established, the fundamental importance of the number four in our thought processes becomes self-fulfilling. It is convenient to always use the same number – and hence geometric shape – for composing our mental view of the world. This has now become habitual for me to the point where I always look, at least as a starting point, for four methods, categories, measures or concepts.

The Knot Garden believes that the number four has a special place in human life because it represents solidity, integrity, durability and balance. After all, it is the number on which the alpha double helix of DNA, the foundation of life itself, is based.

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