Is There Such a Thing as Dyslexia for Math?

By Nina Bai | January 26, 2009 2:59 pm

numbersDoes simple arithmetic give you sweaty palms? Do you always show up late for appointments? Is it a nightmare to figure out the bill at restaurants? If so, you may have dyscalculia, sort of the mathematical version of dyslexia.  People with dyscalculia often excel at languages or visual arts, but can barely pass middle school math. They have trouble with numerical concepts—specifically, with associating numerical quantities with their abstract representations.

Although it’s estimated that about five percent of people have dyscalculia, researchers disagree as to the cause of the disorder. The debate boils down to whether number sense is an innate or learned trait in humans. Some argue that we are born with the ability to understand exact numbers. Even babies, for example, will stare longer when they are shown two dolls moving behind a screen and then three dolls coming out, indicating they were expecting a different numerical outcome.

But others argue that the concept of exact numbers is learned, and that we are born with only an “approximate number sense” that allows us to compare different quantities but not necessarily count them. While algebra might be indispensable in the modern world, researchers say an approximate number sense is really all you need to survive in the wild—allowing you to identify, for example, which tree bears more fruit but not the exact quantity.

Other studies suggest that our innate sense of numbers isn’t linear like a number line, but logarithmic. The Mundurucú people in the Amazon don’t use a number system and don’t even have words for quantities larger than five. When researchers asked them to place numbers on a number line from 1 to 10, they typically place 3 near the middle and 5 closer to 10. As New Scientist explains:

By the Mundurucú way of thinking, 10 is only twice as big as 5, but 5 is five times as big as 1, so 5 is judged to be closer to 10 than to 1. The team conclude that “the concept of a linear number line appears to be a cultural invention that fails to develop in the absence of formal education”. With only limited tools for counting, the Mundurucú fall back on the default mode of thinking about number, the so-called “approximate number system.”

For now, dyscalculia as a learning disorder seems to be the more prevailing school of thought. Researchers say that different teaching methods may help those with dyscalculia grasp mathematical concepts.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Amazoning Tribe Doesn’t Have Words for Numbers
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Image: flickr / Serge Melki

MORE ABOUT: learning, math, numbers
  • pwnage

    Where the hell were these scientists when i was struggling with maths in high school ? Now it is all too late for legitimate excuses :)

  • elly

    Dyscalculics should check out – lots of people to talk to :)

  • Miya

    Great article and great photo!!

  • Mindy Mann

    There are three kinds of people –
    those that can count and those that can’t.

  • Charles Wolfe

    I am sufferer of this! I have an advanced degree in math, but still cannot pass a fourth grade multiplication tables, etc. test. My biggest complaint is that this problem was identified over 60 years ago and included in the “Diagnostic Manual”, but none of my teachers knew about it or thought to refer me to someone who could have diagnosed it or helped me. I nearly failed elementary and middle school because of it.

  • Lyn

    I am 52, a Personal Assistant to a Consulting Engineer and I can do everything BUT not the simplest maths. I looked this subject of “Mathematical Dyxlexia” up today on the net, as I cannot figure how I cannot fill in my timesheet with the hours when it’s not a ‘whole’ hour. I had trouble with maths in kindergarten, primary school, high school, and did the lowest class of mathematics there was in my last year of High Scool, and still the teacher had to cheat and give our whole class the exam ahead of time. Finally we passed, just. I still count on my fingers, and at 48, I finally learned my times tables. But if you give me payroll to do, or anthing remotely with a number in it, I seem to “close shop”, mental breakdown, freak out, lose the plot – you name it – I sweat when I see a decimal point! If you give me wordprocessing, writing, english – I breeze through, but Geez I hate numbers. I am still embarassed at how many hours I spent crying in my school years!

  • http://n/a Amanda

    I am 36 and see myself as being quite ‘bright’ however, when I look at a group of numbers that need to be added up I seem to lose the plot. I was in the bottom maths group in my early years at school which was aptly named the ‘UNIT’ and it was very embarrassing to be in this class. At the end of my school years I ended up in the 2nd to top maths group – how, I don’t know and when I got a F in my GCSE exam (which was effectively a pass as we were the first year to sit the GCSE’s – I know a pass is now A-C) I was shocked to even get that far. Now….the funny thing is I know every single number sequence that has been given to me over the years. ie. my national insurance number, all of my telephone numbers from any address I name including my very first home telephone number (from the age of about 5 years), mobile numbers, credit card numbers, bank numbers, pins etc…the list is endless. So, I believe that the reason I am unable to work out a simple sum is that my brain starts to put any group of numbers that I look at into a memorable sequence and stores it for later retrieval. Now imagine this…for years I have been a saleswoman (17 years) and in past jobs I have had to calculate my commission statements every month. Basically, my boss would give me my commission sheet for me to check that everything was correct. I of course used to try and sit down with him to make sure it was and had asked 2 mostly 3 times for him to “explain it again” and I still didn’t get it. In the end I would just give in and say I understood when I clearly didn’t. I wonder if after realising my mathematical “thickness” they started short changing me hehehehe.

  • Danielle.

    i’m not sure if im dyslexic in maths but i get really nervous at the simplist maths questions. any websites that can help??

  • Roby

    I have just recently heard of Dyscalculia and am amazed I have always had so much trouble with math! I am 46 years old and have always excelled in subjects but almost failed math, everytime. It was horrible in school. To this day, although I can do basic math, I can’t help my 5th grader with her math homework because I am usually lost. It’s a terrible feeling, I wish I had know such a thing existed and wouldn’t it be wonderful if teachers were educated about this? I feel better that at least there is a name for it and I am not the only one who has it.

  • K

    I’m 26. I’m not sure if I have dyscalculia or not, but I do know that I have a hard time “holding” numbers in my head. So while I can’t say with confidence that I’m good at math, I like math a lot. Other people might say I’m good at math, but I’ve had to work very hard. It’s funny because I’m learning about integration, and still struggling with fractions (the way they’re supposed to “flip” when you have the inverse), or multiplication facts, or some other simple arithmetic function. (I usually have to keep re-proving things to myself.) While my innate number ability may not seem as, erm, sophisticated as those whizzes that can take the square root of some ridiculously large number (in my case >49), I’d like to think that there’s other strategies to help boost my ability.

  • Michelle

    I am relieved that there is a name for what I think I have. I always had trouble in math, ever since I was in elementary school. My teachers knew this, and they, along with my parents, thought I was being lazy and said I needed to try harder.

    Now I’m 14 and in CP Algebra 2 in high school. I managed to get a B+ this quarter but mostly because my sister is helping me. I feel stupid in class because I struggle with “holding” numbers in my head, like K said, and it takes me a while to calculate things. I hate being called on in class because I need time to think out an answer and I usually mess up under the pressure. I can learn a math concept one day and forget it by the time I do my homework that same night.

    It’s hard for me to do word problems…no, scratch that. It’s impossible for me to do word problems. I have no idea where to start and I almost always get them wrong. I don’t have a problem in any other subjects, only math, and while I manage to get a pretty good grade, the smallest math problems scare me, for lack of a better word. Like I said before, it’s nice to know that there is a name for all of this and that there is a way to overcome it.

  • Kerry

    I am 46 and have always had ‘trouble’ with numbers: that is, I cant hold numbers in my head. I have got better at it over time but I think this is because I have learnt to ‘hold’ the sound of the number in my head when someone says their phone number, make it into a picture and then sometimes I can write it down without making a mistake. Typically, I have to ask the person to repeat the number as only the first 4 digits stay in my head before the rest becomes a blur. I was terrified of Maths classes untill in my last 2 years of school I had a teacher that explained things in a much more ‘pictorial’ manner, and then I excelled at Maths! Whats amusing about all this is that I only realised this at age 29 when I began to teach CAD to fashion students which involved complex mathmatical issues with sizing of clothing pattern pieces. A student noticed that I always worked with a finger on the screen when looking at number charts and that I had developed a ‘unique’ way of cross checking calculations. I can look at sizing mistakes and intuitively know what type of calculation will correct it. I realised that what I actually was doing was picking up sequences and patterns and what they meant before engaging with the actual calculation amounts. Once I had solved what was wrong, I would then worry about getting the numbers right! What I have learnt is that while I do have a problem with numbers, my mind has unconciously always found ways to counteract the problem in order to get things done. The human brain is an amazing thing!

  • luke

    I was talking eith me sister’s and brother recently. My sister said that 2 of her children seem to have a math disability. I was so surprised at this because I have suffered with my math ineptness since I was 5 years old. I am 57 year’s old now. I’m not happy that I have this syndrome but I’m so happy that I can finally put a face on it if you will. I’ve always felt ashamed about this and some of my elementary teachers had no mercy on me.
    I remember being put in remedial classes which didn’t help much. I have allowed this to stop me from getting my degree because of the final test I must take to graduate. I hope things get better for students who suffer from this dibilating syndrome.


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