Friday, May 27, 2011

Dyscalculia: Why I Can't Get Eight Plus Six

Today's Science Friday had a segment about dyscalculia, which I'd been pronouncing wrong. The emphasis is on CU. This is a defect of the intraparietal sulcus where you can't process numbers like other people. During the show a sixty year old called in and said she was just now learning what was wrong with her. Her story sounds like mine a little bit. I didn't know there was a name for it until about 2005 when I heard Daniel Pinkwater on NPR telling a story about when he was in grade school. It was a horrible story where everybody said he was stupid and he'd never be anything but a ditch digger. I felt so bad for Mr. Pinkwater. And I was so very grateful for my mother standing up for me to my evil first grade teacher who shaved her eyebrows and painted them back on halfway up her forehead.

Dyscalculia is inherited, like color blindness. My genetics has done me some favors, like I've weighed the same thing since I was 16 and I can see without glasses despite the spasms of accommodation. But that's balanced by migraines, acid reflux, the color blindness gene and dyscalculia. My brother can't spell but they don't have a name for that. I am grateful I can point to the part of my brain that's faulty and blame that.

Now when I was in first grade my mama knew I wasn't stupid. I taught myself to read when I was 4 and they put me in first grade when I was 5. But when it was time for us to do arithmetic I would stubbornly add when I was supposed to subtract if the number on the bottom was bigger. 12-7=? Hmm. 7, 8, 9, stick on a 1, 19. My teacher called my mama in for a conference. I don't know what mama said to her. I guess she told Mrs. High Eyebrows to worry about the little boy that peed every time he had to read front of the class and she would take care of my math problem. And she got me some flash cards.

HP65 at Johnson Space Center Apollo exhibit.
My dad has one just like that.
My mother has trouble with math too, so even though she didn't know what dyscalculia was she did have a color blind brother and a color blind son and knew how genetics worked. She probably just put 2 and 2 together.... Wait. Well, no, but whatever, she guessed it was an inherited trait and figured I was just like her. I remember when I was just small she told me how excited she was when she got to high school and took geometry. She ROCKED geometry after eight years of struggling with arithmetic. This is common in dyscalculics, according to the expert on Science Friday. Where the brain can't combine quantities properly it does fine with relationships like parallel lines and equal angles. That dream of geometry got me through multiplication tables in third grade.

Daniel Pinkwater scored high enough on the SAT to get in college by studying like mad and memorizing. I did the same thing to get through first grade. Then my dad got me a calculator. He has been collecting HP calculators since before I was born. He started me out with cheap drug store calculators when I was so little I was likely to gum it up it with whatever I was eating. He got me an HP11c when I got to high school. Reverse polish notation made all of my dreams come true. When I started Georgia Tech he upgraded me to an HP15c. I still have it and it still works. I paid $30 for the iPhone app so I can leave it safe at home now because they're worth about $300 on eBay.

When I was in middle school I found a book in a cabinet at the house that was about math. It showed how you could add a long column of numbers by picking out the groups that make 10 and then add those up. I studied that book and that's how I managed to do well on the SAT where they don't let you use a calculator. When I decided to go to graduate school I read somewhere you had to get a 600 on the math portion of the GRE to get in so I crammed like hell for a week on arithmetic. When I got in to take the test I wrote out the multiplication tables on the scratch paper before I started so I could quickly look stuff up. And I missed it. I only got 550 on math. I was heartbroken. Turns out I was on the wrong page on the FSU website and only computer science majors have to score that high. I overshot the requirements for Oceanography by 250 points overall. (I'm still mystified how I only ranked in the 30th percentile on the written portion of the GRE. You guys feel ripped off for reading my blog now don't you?)

Some of the flash card sums I still know. 5+7=12 is instant. I know that one. Anything +9 is easy because adding a 1 on the front and taking away one is not a problem. (I actually think of 1 and one differently. 1 in front of other numbers adds an order of magnitude but one is counting up or down to the next number on the other end of the line.) Anything doubled, I'm there. But when I was studying for the GRE I found out I don't know what 8+6 is. I know 8+8=16 though, and I know if I count down two I get there, 16, 15, 14. Now I am as curious about this as you. The whole time I was typing that I didn't know it was going to be 14 until I got to the end. Frankly I was rooting for 12.

When I was making up mnemonic devices for these things I used the shapes a lot, imagining manipulations of the digits to get the shape of the answer, which I suppose goes back to that geometry thing. My Aunt Jano says she sees a magnitude in her mind when she reads a digit. I don't see a magnitude. I see the shape of the actual arabic numeral but that's it. I think it is entirely possible that I cannot wrap my head around 8+6 because it is two round numbers that equal two digits with nothing round in them at all. 1 and 4 are just straight lines to me. How can two round things combine to be something so pointy? It's impossible, I refuse to believe it. Or apparently the artistic center in my brain that I have recruited to do math since the intraparietal sulcus is unavailable refuses to believe it.

I wonder what my life would be like if I had the sense Mr. Pinkwater did? If I had gone to a school to be a writer instead of one where I had to manipulate equations all day every day? They said in the Science Friday piece that people with dyscalculia are unemployed at a higher rate than other people. Well I certainly have been unemployed more than anybody else I know, especially other Georgia Tech grads. I wonder if it's because of the math or because the part of our brain we're using to do math instead of the normal part is the part other people use to put up with psycho bosses? I'm pretty sure my deficiency at arithmetic is less related to my unemployment as the character flaw of being intolerant of people I don't respect telling me what to do.
My original HP15C purchased new in 1985 and my iPhone simulator. Notice the pencil markings
 on the real one? You can store numbers in the memory so I have dimensional analysis conversions
saved in there. I could save them in the iPhone version too, but how would I remember
which button was the number of seconds in a year or the speed of light in km/sec?


  1. Wow. This is really fascinating. I am really interested in disorders passed down genetically. My dad is color blind and as a child I was obsessed with this fact. I spent hours questioning him about the colors of things. So, watch out! I might start throwing random math questions at you!

    Seriously though, very interesting. I have never heard of this before. Very impressive the stuff you came up with to get through testing and what not.


    I use this tool to test things like maps to see if my brother will be able to read them. I used Google Earth to plot tracks from a GPS and I thought magenta looked great against an aerial image of trees, but not to a protanope.

  3. Wow! I so connect. I read novels, lots and lots of novels so I've known I had dycalculia for a decade or so, ever since I ran across it in a novel and said "that's me!" Like you, I read early. I was reading the Rocky Mountain News daily at age 5 since I had read all the books in the house. The GRE threw me for a loop. Fortunately I went to a graduate school that counted all three sections. I aced what I interpreted as the reading and puzzle solving parts (it's been more than a quarter of a century so I don't remember what they were really called) which was good because on the math part, for which I had studied and drilled relentlessly, I scored about as well as a chimpanze would.

  4. I ha always had problems spelling and back when I went to school they just la labeled you as dumb. There is a name for what your brother has it is hearing Dyslexia. The school system found my doughtier had it in first grade and gave her help in math speech and reading through the 6th grade. She graduated cum laude from college last year.

  5. Interesting, John. I looked up hearing dyslexia. I read that in tests picking out which light came on first in association with a sound, people with dyslexia had a longer associated time between the sound and the light. Maybe that's why my brother couldn't understand me when I talked fast! He was a good reader and writer though, and can spell everything fine, he just mixes up homophones. He graduated with honors from Georgia Tech, better than I did. He had me type his Masters Thesis for him and put "site" and "sight" in the right places. He is a successful engineer now and probably has a staff person proofread his reports. His daughter isn't bad with homophones too, so it must be another inherited thing.

  6. Barbara, I have to tell you, it was yesterday that I knew the word "dyscalculia" existed. And I've had it my whole life. I thought I was stupid with math for years until I started realizing that if there was something real-world involved, something tangible, then the numbers started to make some sense. I've used technology, calculators and computers, to make sure that what I was finding was correct. I got a 4.0 in Algebra last year after spending hours on math and hours with a math tutor and every single math problem, no matter how simple, was verified through a calculator.

    Math in my head... now that is a scary thought. I can come up with stuff that my math tutor just looks at me and says, "Now how did you come up with that?" to which I reply, "Its a scary place in my brain."

    Story problems... when I try to take numbers out of words for a story problem, its like someone is squeezing my eyes from the sides and I cannot figure out for the life of me what goes where, what is important or even really what that darn number is anyhow. Numbers and letters and words do NOT belong together! Words are words and they form lovely, wonderful, understandable sentences! Numbers.. bah!

    I, at 34, am now going for dyscalculia testing as I am enrolled in Pre-Calculus and calculators are not allowed. All figuring must be done on paper and according to the profs, I should know how to do that kind of addition, subtraction and so on of whole numbers and fractions anyhow.

    Amazing to find out new things that may help. Heh!

    Have you ever run across any information about using colored plastic sheets that are over math or reading problems and the color over-layed over the subject matter helps correct the disconnect that the brain is having?

    Erin Bisco

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