Around 5 percent of the population is thought to suffer from 'maths dyslexia' but it is still a little-known condition. Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology is working to elucidate this under-explored learning difficulty. 

Developmental Psychology
By Helen Massy-Beresford

Professor Roi Cohen Kadosh and his team at Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology is working hard to increase understanding of a condition that most people have never heard of. 

Dyscalculia can limit education and career options, make everyday tasks such as budgeting for a weekly shop difficult and harm self-esteem and even mental health but the condition, sometimes known as “maths dyslexia” is surprisingly little known.

Sufferers of dyscalculia can have problems with mathematical tasks including mental arithmetic, counting backwards and estimating numbers. Around 5 percent of the population is thought to suffer from the condition – about the same proportion as suffers from dyslexia – much less is known about dyscalculia.Maths

Academic research budgets are still skewed towards efforts to understand other learning difficulties but Cohen Kadosh and Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology are part of a drive to change that.

'Forty years ago maths was seen as a luxury and people were much more preoccupied with reading as a very important and basic ability,' says Cohen Kadosh. 

'Nowadays with all the technological enhancements around, numbers start to be a very dominant aspect of our everyday life,' he adds.

Oxford too has previously been known more for its research into literacy-related learning difficulties but Cohen Kadosh is hopeful that studies being carried out now can one day contribute to reducing and even eliminating the problems faced by sufferers of dyscalculia – although that is still some way off. 'Hopefully we will be successful, or others will be successful, but these things take time.'

Sufferers of dyscalculia have difficulty grasping even simple, single-digit numbers, causing them problems with everyday activities like shopping and budgeting. 'These are things that require conceptual understanding of what numbers are,' Cohen Kadosh says. maths

The Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford is leading the EU-funded Learning & Achievement project, a long-term study which is first looking at healthy subjects and using MRI scans as part of its efforts to find out how our brains process numbers and how that mathematical ability fits in with other cognitive abilities. 

The researchers know that the brain’s ability to process numbers does not exist separately from other functions and they want to find out exactly how it fits in with other cognitive abilities.

In parallel with that research project, whose results will not be clear for some time, the Cohen Kadosh lab is taking a more practical, short-term approach, working with schools and parents to carry out cognitive training with children who have dyscalculia – helping them find ways to work around their condition. 

Marcus du Sautoy, OBE, Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science

Above: Marcus du Sautoy, Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science 

'This is less about the mechanistic understanding of how the brain works and more about intervention. There are heart-breaking accounts of children with dyscalculia – how people mock their inability to understand very basic things, they call them stupid and they feel they are stupid,' Cohen Kadosh says.

Those effects can be long-lasting, he adds. 'I speak from time to time to adults who have dyscalculia and for them just knowing there is a name for their difficulty is such a relief. They didn't know something like this existed. They thought they maybe were indeed stupid or lazy.'

The researchers are recruiting for their study – for details go to:


By Liam

Another potential issue with dyscalculia is that IQ tests are often numerically challenging. I've known bright, intelligent people with IQ scores around 80 - "Borderline mentally deficient". They weren't, but they struggled with maths. It's not just feeling lazy or stupid, it's having that IQ test officially say that.

By Peter Hancorn

This is a very welcome research initiative and surely long overdue. Numerate people simply can't conceive of an inability to do basic arithmetic and manipulate numbers. Perhaps a good start for those with discalculia would be to read Alex Bellos's ook "Alex's Adventures in Numberland" which is both informative and entertaining.

By RH Findlay

I recall that as a child at primary school, at around the age of 6, I had no issues with dealing with GB Pounds shillings and pence, using the bases 12 and 20 (and 2 for ha'pennies and 4 for farthings), but when it came to units, tens and hundreds I was sent out of the class because I couldn't understand how 10 became carry-1 and 100 became carry-1 and how one used this to add up in the decimal system. But I never found it unreasonable that 16 pennies made 1 shilling and 4 pence. And with large number of noughts behind a 1 (e.g. 1000000000000) I have to translate them to powers of 10 if I am going to go anywhere quickly. I doubt that this is dyscalculia as described in this article, and I can't see how it would relate to the teacher at my primary school, apart from her stupidity in sending me out of class for being "stupid", but given the simplicity of the decimal system in comparison with the British imperial system, one wonders if there might be an anti-decimal quirk in this "British" brain.

Perhaps also worthy of research is why some people grasp mathematical concepts very quickly to the point where they just see the equation popping into their heads, whereas many other simply struggle with equations. I have always wondered if this is in part to do with having to put up with uninspiring and sarcastic teachers as a teenager in secondary school, or it is indeed to do with linkages in the brain. Or perhaps a bit of both as the brain is developing at that time?