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It’s dyscalculia.

The curse of math instructors everywhere.

A few years ago, students at the community college, where I taught, petitioned to have math removed from the list of courses that were required for a degree. Part of the reason, they argued, was that one student claimed that he shouldn’t have to take math because he had dyscalculia.

(Dyscalculia is like dylexsia, except that it makes it harder for people to do arithmetic. )

The math instructors argued that they weren’t going to eliminate requirements for a “fictional disease.”

Now, it appears that miscalculations do have a biological basis and researchers at University College London have been able to show it.

Using fMRI, the authors found differences in brain activity, in a specific region of the brain, between people with dyscalculia and people without the condition.

I’m willing to bet that in the next few years, we clone the gene. But can you calculate the probability?

Castelli, F., Glaser, D., Butterworth, B. “Discrete and analogue quantity processing in the parietal lobe: A functional MRI study” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006 March 21; 103(12): 4693-4698.


  1. #1 Eric Irvine
    March 26, 2007

    But what does that correlation mean? I think it means that they just haven’t learned to do math that well, not that they couldn’t learn and get their brain patterns matching the mathies in the future.

    And this is coming from an arts student (although I do enjoy stats).

  2. #2 Torbjrn Larsson
    March 26, 2007

    Perhaps there is a conflation made by some parts here. Presumably dyscalculia doesn’t prevent one from doing math any more than dyslexia prevents one from enjoying novels. (Even if they have to be read out loud by another.)

    I’m not sure that numerical ability, and even visual ability, can be considered general among mathematicians. (And by hearsay, some mathematicians can’t do budgets well, and IIRC there is said to be at least one topologist who claims to do all math by logic and language reasoning alone not being visually gifted. It could be rumors, it could be true.)

  3. #3 decrepitoldfool
    March 26, 2007

    I am dyslexic but read voraciously, by depending on context to get the meaning of words as I go. This strategy does not work when doing math because I mix up the numbers visually and can’t fix them by context. Using a calculator does not help because I can’t easily read the screen. But if I have a student helper read the numbers to me, there is no problem and I can usually do the problem in my head or with a slide rule.

    It seriously impeded my ability to work with quantitative information ’til I figured it out. Wonder how often dyslexia is interpreted as dyscalculia?

  4. #4 derek
    March 27, 2007

    The math instructors argued that they weren’t going to eliminate requirements for a “fictional disease.”

    I don’t think they need to claim a disease is fictional to be able to refuse to eliminate a requirement. I mean, I’m really sorry that you’re blind, Mr. Smith, but we can’t just give you a pilot’s licence and waive the requirement that you actually demonstrate an ability to, you know, fly a plane.

  5. #5 tristero
    March 27, 2007

    I’ll bet this is far more complicated than it appears right now. For example, when I took a course on statistics, I found it so easy and enjoyable that I ruined the curve for the class. On tests, I was regularly getting 99 to 100 right out of 100 while the other students were in the mid 70’s.

    On the other hand, my math skills hand comprehension have always been poor. My SATs and GREs were abysmal (and exceedingly high on verbal). Once I married the daughter of a physicist. My woeful math was a family joke; her father, one of the kindest men I’ve ever known, was simply appalled.

    If fMRI studies can shed light on any of this, and help find ways to help improve math pedagogy, I wouldn’t laugh at it. I would love to have a better understanding of math.

    And no, difficulties apprehending math are absolutely no reason to eliminate a college requirement.

  6. #6 tristero
    March 27, 2007

    Hmmm…if I understand it properly the article really compares the different ways brains process a request to make a quantitative judgment based on the way the request is presented, as a “discrete” task vs. an “analogue” task, or “how many” vs “how much”. I dunno if the results are entirely extrapolatable to folks who have problems with math.

  7. #7 Organic Chemistry Help
    May 14, 2007

    I understand these student’s poitn of view, I have dysworkoheria, which makes me unable to hard to handle hard work. I petitioned my profs to let me graduate based on work I did in high school, based on the fact that i might go into convulsions and die if i were fored to do any work. Unfortunately only the sociology department agreed.

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