Don't get math? Researchers home in on the brain's problem

October 5, 2011 By Sharon Noguchi

Can't calculate a tip or even balance your checkbook? Take heart; maybe you can blame your brain - specifically, the parietal cortex in the top back part of the head. And it could be a problem that has roots not in a failed arithmetic or "new math" lesson, but even earlier.

Recent findings indicate that how well 3-year-olds estimate quantities predicts their in elementary school. Another study funded by the National Institutes of Health showed that the innate capacity to estimate is impaired in children who have a learning disability.

The findings are so new that there's no widely accepted way to diagnose what's known as (dis-cal-KOO-lia), nor any set strategies for coping with it - even though 5 percent to 8 percent of the population is thought so suffer from math . Consider it the mathematical partner to dyslexia, which impairs .

But while researchers have explored causes of dyslexia and developed strategies for compensating, the study of dyscalculia lags about 30 years behind. As a result, many people remain stymied by math. And math dysfunction is socially accepted.

"I hate math so much," said Juan Mendoza, 21. He has taken intermediate algebra six times at San Jose City College but has always dropped out part way. Finally, a teacher explained formulas in an understandable way. Just like he's overcome his dyslexia, he said, maybe researchers will find a way to better teach differently wired brains.

The ability to estimate is an oft-tapped skill that, for example, helps waiting shoppers determine which checkout line is likely to move faster at the grocery store. And understanding the cause of the disability could lead to identifying children at risk of failing math and developing ways to help them.

"Children are being considered lazy or unmotivated, or not to have potential, when in fact they have a disability in processing numbers," said Michele M.M. Mazzocco, the lead researcher on the studies. "We need to learn how this can be overcome."

Mazzocco and colleagues at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore began tracking 249 kindergartners in public schools in 1997. She found large differences in children's estimation skills. Even as ninth-graders, some who viewed a set of colored dots flashed briefly on a screen found it difficult to consistently estimate the number, or to distinguish quantities, such as 20 dots from 15 dots.

To tell how many dots we see or to compare quantities, the brain taps into its "approximate number system." Mazzocco found that students in the bottom 10 percent of math achievement lagged in those estimation skills. But that doesn't apply to everyone who "doesn't get" math; the study found that children in the bottom 11 percent to 25 percent had no problem with estimation.

What dyscalculic children lack is "number sense," something that most people take for granted but is a construct that can't always be taught. "You can't just tell somebody that 8 is more than 4," Mazzocco said. "It's not like memorizing states and their capitals."

Just like dyslexics, children suffering from dyscalculia may be intelligent, she said. "They are processing information differently."

More research could lead to ways to help people who struggle with math, said Daniel Ansari, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario.

Ansari's studies have shown that children with dyscalculia don't activate the , which is critical for number processing, in the same way that other children do. Researchers still don't know why, nor whether inactivity in that lobe of the brain causes the math problem or is a symptom of the disability.

"It's a severely underinvestigated disorder," Ansari said.

But what happens as children fail in arithmetic, he said, is that some develop math anxiety and then want to shun the subject.

A survey released last month seems to bear that out. The for-profit Sylvan Learning reports that about one-third of 400 surveyed would sacrifice a month of video gaming or going on Facebook if they could never have to do algebra again, and 71 percent of 534 parents surveyed think helping kids with algebra is harder than teaching them to drive.

On a recent Wednesday at Bancroft Middle School in San Leandro, math teacher Mike Mandel was trying to explain negative numbers to a sixth-grader. "She didn't understand the concept that -6 is less than zero," he said. "I could tell she was trying her hardest, and it just wasn't clicking for her."

At Gunderson High in San Jose math teacher Chuck Vacari is convinced that all students can learn - even algebra. "But they have to want to," said Vacari, who teaches algebra and catch-up classes. He believes that students fall behind in their early teens not so much because of a disability, but because of distractions like Facebook. And once they get off track, it's hard to catch up.

Mazzocco said that "people have a perception that because math can be hard, either you're good at it or not. But even if you have to exert effort, that doesn't mean you should give up on it."

Explore further: Psychology study finds key early skills for later math learning

shares

Related Stories

Psychology study finds key early skills for later math learning

July 11, 2011
Psychologists at the University of Missouri have identified the beginning of first grade math skills that teachers and parents should target to effectively improve children's later math learning.

Recommended for you

Scientists become research subjects in after-hours brain-scanning project

July 27, 2017
A quest to analyze the unique features of individual human brains evolved into the so-called Midnight Scan Club, a group of scientists who had big ideas but almost no funding and little time to research the trillions of neural ...

In witnessing the brain's 'aha!' moment, scientists shed light on biology of consciousness

July 27, 2017
Columbia scientists have identified the brain's 'aha!' moment—that flash in time when you suddenly become aware of information, such as knowing the answer to a difficult question. Today's findings in humans, combined with ...

Scientists block evolution's molecular nerve pruning in rodents

July 27, 2017
Researchers investigating why some people suffer from motor disabilities report they may have dialed back evolution's clock a few ticks by blocking molecular pruning of sophisticated brain-to-limb nerve connections in maturing ...

Social influences can override aggression in male mice, study shows

July 27, 2017
Stanford University School of Medicine investigators have identified a cluster of nerve cells in the male mouse's brain that, when activated, triggers territorial rage in a variety of situations. Activating the same cluster ...

Researchers reveal unusual chemistry of protein with role in neurodegenerative disorders

July 27, 2017
A common feature of neurodegenerative diseases is the formation of permanent tangles of insoluble proteins in cells. The beta-amyloid plaques found in people with Alzheimer's disease and the inclusion bodies in motor neurons ...

Mother's brain reward response to offspring reduced by substance addiction

July 27, 2017
Maternal addiction and its effects on children is a major public health problem, often leading to high rates of child abuse, neglect and foster care placement. In a study published today in the journal Human Brain Mapping, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.