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11 Facts About the Math Disorder Dyscalculia

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Chances are you’ve heard of the reading disability dyslexia. It reportedly affects up to 15 percent of the population, and public figures from the fictional Jaime Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones to real-life comic Eddie Izzard have grappled with the learning disorder. But have you ever heard of dyscalculia, the math disability? Probably not, even though up to six percent of elementary school students in the U.S. may struggle with it.

A big part of the general population's unfamiliarity with dyscalculia has to do with our culture’s general discomfort with numbers, and our ingrained belief that math—compared to reading—is just supposed to be hard. Dr. Gavin Price, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University who has researched dyscalculia in several countries, says, "When I teach classes, I’ll ask at the beginning, 'How many people think they’re not good at math, they’re bad at math?' And half of them put their hands up. Then I ask, 'Are any of you bad at reading?' And nobody puts their hand up."

Dr. Edward Hubbard, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, echoes this sentiment, and adds that attitudes toward math may play a part not just in our overall lack of dyscalculia awareness, but in the fact that dyscalculia research is at least two decades behind dyslexia research.

“I think some of it is cultural attitudes towards math,” says Hubbard, who has researched dyscalculia in France and the United States and heads up his university’s Educational Neuroscience lab, which is embarking on a new dyscalculia study. “If you look around, the number of people who sort of say, 'I’m bad at math,' and laugh about it, or will say, without batting an eye, 'I’m just not a math person,' is striking.”

So, in the interest of raising dyscalculia awareness, begin your crash course on the little-known mathematical disorder with these 11 facts.

1. The term dyscalculia was coined in the 1940s, but didn’t really become fully recognized until the 1974 work of Czechoslovakian researcher Ladislav Kosc.

Kosc defined the disorder as "a structural disorder of mathematical abilities" caused by impairment to the parts of the brain used in mathematical calculations, without simultaneous impairment to one's general mental abilities. (In layman's terms: You're bad at math because parts of your brain aren't working properly, but you're not otherwise mentally handicapped.) Today, some research communities also use the terms “math dyslexia” and “math learning disability” to refer to the condition.

2. There are two types of dyscalculia.

Most people diagnosed with the disorder have developmental dyscalculia, which means they were born with it. But, with what's known as acquired dyscalculia, the disorder can also arise later in life, usually as the result of a stroke or injury.

3. Struggling with matrices in algebra or flunking calculus in college doesn’t usually mean you have dyscalculia.

This disability tends to impede your most basic skills. “Somebody who has dyscalculia will struggle with the most basic arithmetic facts, 5+2=7,” Hubbard says. “They will struggle to tell you seven is larger than five. We’ll see them counting on their fingers for basic addition.”

4. Dyscalculia may be rooted in the brain's parietal lobe.

What causes dyscalculia? To date, the most popular theory maintains that dyscalculia is connected to an inability to judge quantities, a sense that is concentrated in the parietal lobe.

“One of the theories that exists is that dyscalculia is really caused by an impairment in what’s known as either the number sense or the approximate number system,” Price says. “And that system is what allows us to know that, for example, a group of five apples is more than three apples. It allows us to compare, and order, and process quantities without the use of verbal symbols or labels."

"And so what we did [in a study in Finland]," Price continues, "was scan these dyscalculic kids while they were doing those type of tasks, and we compared their brain activation to the typically developing kids, and we found that indeed this region in the parietal cortex, the intraparietal sulcus, behaved atypically in these kids when they were processing these non-symbolic numerical magnitudes.”

5. Researchers have been able to induce dyscalculia in patients.

In 2007, a group of researchers at University College London were able to engender temporary dyscalculia in people who don’t have the disorder by using transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. TMS is often used to treat depression, and involves placing a large electromagnetic coil against the scalp.

In the study, researchers applied TMS to the right parietal lobe while their subjects were comparing quantities, and found that the stimulation briefly made it hard for the subject to tell if one quantity was bigger than the other.

6. Dyscalculia may manifest itself in different ways. 

While the above research shows that dyscalculia is closely associated with problems in the parietal lobe that affect one's understanding of the number system, researchers like Hubbard think some people who suffer from dyscalculia might feel the disorder differently.

“The problem may not be with number sense itself, but with linking number symbols with number sense,” Hubbard says. “Maybe it differs across other people. Maybe there is a subgroup of people for whom their difficulties are in the number system itself, for other people it’s in symbols.” 

7. Dyscalculia is represented in pop culture.

While dyslexic characters are much more common in popular culture, there are some examples of dyscalculics to be found. Fans of Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation may remember Liberty Van Zandt having it, and X-Men fans may know that Wolverine's sidekick Jubilee is a whiz at manipulating pyrotechnics but not numbers.

8. Dyscalculia doesn't discriminate by gender.

You may have noticed that both our pop culture examples were female, but dyscalculia, at least at this juncture, does not appear to have a gender gap.

“My sense is that it’s pretty even. But at the same time, I feel like the gender ratio has been less a focus of investigation than it was for dyslexia,” Hubbard says, adding that research saying boys are more prone to dyslexia than girls is “pretty well supported.”

Hubbard is aware that this flies in the face of the (offensive) stereotype that women are worse at math than men—a generalization that seems to have little basis in fact. “What we see is that the gender differences [in mathematical ability] have gotten smaller and smaller. As we have better role models for girls in math, we’ve had greater opportunities and fewer impediments to girls being able to do well. The differences that we’re seeing are largely due to cultural differences.”

9. However, some groups are at greater risk of dyscalculia than others.

People with Turner syndrome, epilepsy, and Fragile X syndrome are more likely to have dyscalculia. You are also at greater risk for dyscalculia if you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), if your mother drank during her pregnancy, or if you were born prematurely.

10. It can be tough to diagnose.

“One of the problems, one of the challenges with dyscalculia, the reason that it hasn’t gotten the same attention [as dyslexia], is that it is a highly co-morbid disorder,” Price says. “Often, people who are bad at math are bad at a number of things.”

But while a diagnosis may be difficult to come by, treating a patient's other conditions may also alleviate his or her dyscalculia. For example, one study of people with ADHD who both were and weren’t dyscalculic found that putting them on a stimulant improved their calculating ability, but not their basic numerical skills.

11. There is no cure for dyscalculia.

But don't lose hope! Dyscalculics can learn math, even if they may always struggle with parts of it because of their neurological differences. Luckily, you use more than the parietal part of your brain when doing math, Price says. “Multiple skills come under the umbrella of math, and all of these things will engage all of the lobes of the brain.”

Therefore, early detection is key in helping children cope with dyscalculia. And for adults struggling with the disorder, a shift in attitude may be the first step in overcoming the obstacles dyscalculia presents.

“When we think of struggling with reading, most adults would not think of going back and listening to the sounds of language,” Hubbard says. “Similarly, if you recognize that you’re struggling with math, your first thought isn’t probably that you should go back to trying to see how much stuff is out there, use this basic sense of number that I have, and try to link that to basic number symbol. People would probably try to work at a higher level. What you should really be doing is going back and looking at these foundational skills, things that most teachers, most parents, and most people assume we all just have.”

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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17 Things to Know About René Descartes
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The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

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