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.
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.
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.
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.
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: http://sites.google.com/site/brain4maths/welcome