Self-Diagnosed and Induced Dyscalculia: My Math Experience and Its Relation to Working Memory

Posted on September 28, 2008 by


In my first two years of high school, math was one of my best classes. I did well in Algebra I that I got into Honors Geometry. From Honors Geometry, I did well enough to progress into Honors Algebra II.

Honors Algebra II…where fecal matter made contact with the fan, and my confidence in my math skills evaporated like a fart in the wind.

Mind you, when I took my SATs the following year, I still got the same exact low score on verbal as I did my math, but given my scores in SAT II subject tests, I figured I was just headed for a life without math. Plus, I didn’t want to start behind in college, at precalculus, so I just thought I’d avoid it altogether.

Thanks to a vague “quantitative” requirement at UC-Santa Cruz, in which I would be able to use introductory science classes to satisfy the requirement, I was able to slip by my classes without doing much math.

Six years on, two years out of college, staring down options for graduate school, I am still wondering when I am going to take the GRE and/or the CBEST.

At the center of this standardized test hold-up: my fear of my performing poorly in the maths sections. A paralyzing dual fear of 1) forgotten methods and even scarier, 2) miscalculations.

I am now studying all that math that I forgot.

I tried re-doing math when I transferred to LA by re-doing precalculus, but I was practically run over by the speed at which we went through material and it felt like I never had a solid foot on just what the hell was going on. I probably forgot what to do which was one thing, but another thing was simple miscalculation — getting things wrong in simple division, subtraction, addition, and multiplication, which I shouldn’t have!

In just one moment of failure in math, in high school, I atrophied almost a life-time of accumulated skills.

Nowadays, when I look at even just the idea of rational numbers, everything seems very rote. “Rote” as in unbelievably dull, disparate, disconnected, meaningless. I could throw numbers around and not care. Numbers and signs are symbols of an arduous, painful journey upon which I eventually need to take steps.

I might’ve been keen just continuing what I was doing, but, I’ve had an education in deconstruction that has taken me in a 270 degree turn almost back to where I was as a math student. Almost.

Numbers in themselves are not ‘bad’ or ‘good.’ It is merely a language that communicates trust. Trust across different academic disciplines, communicating trust from government to person, from media or business to consumer. The key is that numbers are merely language. Language is merely a tool for expressing thought. Using math is a tool for expressing thought, but in terms of quantification and precision. It expresses a discreet, definite answer to a societally important question of ‘how much.’

In a highly-interconnected society with lots of buildings, roads, people, and objects, but apparently not enough time, space, and/or resources, the question of “how much” is now that much more important.

However, just because its that much more important and perhaps has increased its utility doesn’t necessarily mean people want to or actually do learn that language.

I had been wondering why this language of math suddenly became so daunting for me.

One clue from my heightened love for languages and neurosciences:

Dyscalculia arises because a person cannot develop adequate representations of how many things there are.­ /releases/2006/03/060320221545.htm

So the inverse logic is that perhaps I probably have lost an adequate representation of how many things there actually were: I let numbers become too generalized so that they lost their adequate representation. Subsequently, all numbers, notations, and symbols somehow all became similar, particularly when I arrived at answers. I was neglecting negative signs, forgetting to add, subtract, multiply, divide.

Why did numbers become so “generalized?”

Perhaps because I started putting concepts in my own terms.

I had learned in my high school psychology class the next year about alternative memory methods. By this time I figured I was heading into the social sciences and humanities, so I focused on just remembering everything in psychology or history. To remember all of what I was learning, I was trying to make the subject material more relevant to me. I was putting concepts in my own terms, making ideas teachers presented to me, relevant to my own experiences.

I was trying to metaphor-ize social science and history subjects to things in my daily life.

Metaphors are imperfect tools of language which seeks to underline and understand similarity. It seeks to understand relationships. The similarities are almost always arbitrary, but it makes it easy to remember because I see their connection to things that I’ve experienced. The new concept simply adds to that experience. Metaphors are about understanding relationships between things.

When doing my social science thing, I don’t necessarily accept terms used to describe things as they appear to be. In fact, I fight a lot of them, because I don’t think people like being reduced. I don’t think I’d ever call anyone an “illegal immigrant” lest we call everyone in the United States.

Why do we label in the first place? We do it to make fast manipulations when making fast decisions — a survival mechanism. It’s a tool to help us model just what the hell is immediately happening around us.

Conversely, math is about manipulating or changing relationships, and it depends heavily on acknowledging labels in the first place. Labels, symbols, notations. -4 + 5 is different from 4 + 5. You have to acknowledge that ‘-‘ before the 4, which is exactly the kind of thing I was forgetting in my GRE test exams.

How to manipulate and change relationships and acknowledge those relationships?

Ostensibly, it seems to depend on developing visuo-spatial ability. Rubik’s cube people, chess players are said to have a visuo-spatial abilities, which they can co-opt to their advantage. Einstein’s brain was said to be 15% larger in the part of the brain that deals with these abilities. He was said to “think in pictures.”

Surprisingly or not, video game playing improves visuo-spatial skills.

That Causes Some People To Be Lousy In Math. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 20, 2008, from­ /releases/2006/03/060320221545.htm

Posted in: Math, Uncategorized