Number Troubles Greater Than or Equal To Literary Troubles

Screen shot from "Number Crunchers,' one of my favorite math games from grade school.

Chances are pretty good that you’ve heard of dyslexia before. If you’re like me, you associate the word with people mixing up letters, reading an a before an e when it’s really the other way around. But in fact, developmental reading disorder – which is the term’s official name – refers to the inability of a person’s brain to properly recognize and process certain symbols. It’s a pretty broad and general term, but those who suffer from it have an uphill battle their entire lives.

What could be worse than not being able to read? Or read quickly, for that matter? Homework assignments would take twice as long. Filling out paperwork for banks, loans, doctors appointments, anything, would become a hassle.

The only thing worse – perhaps – would be the inability to process numbers correctly. Working out change, times, simple arithmetic; surely that would be just as debilitating, no?

Well in fact it can be, and it has a name – dyscalculia. But you never hear about it. Until now.

A new paper published in Science magazine by University of Minnesota Professor Sashank Varma outlines the problems associated with dyscalculia, research into how and why it occurs, and possible solutions.

Let’s start with some basic numbers. Dyscalculia affects about 5 to 7% of the population, which is roughly the same number as dyslexia. However, since 2000, the National Institutes of Health has spent only $2.3 million on it, versus $107.2 million on dyslexia.

You may argue that solving dyslexia would help dyscalculia – after all they seem to be related – but you’d be wrong. The brain functions that handle numbers versus words are completely separate.

So what is dyscalculia and how does it affect people? Research is little, but here’s what the paper gathers. The brain handles the memorization of math facts (2 + 2 = 4) differently than remembering rules for general arithmetic. People can be affected in either discipline while remaining normal in the other. However, whether one is working out a new problem or just remembering the multiplication table, the area of the brain that handles the meaning of the number – just how big 20 is, for example – is always active. And it is an inability to use this feature that the authors point to as a major component of dyscalculia.

They go on to suggest a couple of computer games for children with low mathematics skills to play to try to strengthen this skill. Both show two separate groups of objects – fields of dots or images – and asks which one is bigger. As the children do better, the discrepancy between the groups gets smaller. The goal is to strengthen the meaning of numbers in the individuals. If successful, such programs are worth 12 to 19 times their investment because numerical competency has been tied to the GDP in numerous studies.

This is only a first suggestion. There is much to learn about the disease, and the authors make no promises on the returns of such antidotes. It is not clear if dyscalculia is like dyslexia in that early intervention can make a significant difference in later performance.

However, it is certainly worth the effort of finding out, and they’re just trying to raise awareness. So there. Now you’re aware.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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One Response to Number Troubles Greater Than or Equal To Literary Troubles

  1. Bugsy says:

    Number crunchers! That game was awesome.

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