When numbers and quantities are an abstract concept

Photo by Andrew McElroy on Unsplash

Counting and calculating

Around 5 percent of children struggle with difficulties in numeracy, also known as “dyscalculia”. For them, numbers are often nothing more than arbitrary symbols. They find it difficult to acquire a sense of the size of different numbers or to compare them. Performing calculations is almost impossible. These weaknesses typically lead to impaired school performance and, later, to disadvantages in the workplace.

Mathematical skills are required in countless aspects of everyday life. Precise amounts are required in cooking; carpenters must be able to make accurate measurements; engineers must be able to perform precise calculations. Sophisticated mathematical skills are required in more or less every profession. Those who experience difficulties with math perform poorly at school and have great limitations in their professional future, with both child and adult sufferers experiencing enormous pressure to acquire mathematical skills at any cost. For children with dyscalculia, the skills with which many of their peers’ struggle in the first years of school remain an excruciating lifelong obstacle. If a child with congenital dyscalculia is not supported effectively despite the best efforts of their parents and school staff, they will continue to lack confidence and motivation in their efforts to learn. The bitter disappointment of not being able to keep pace with their peers often results in a general aversion to anything learning-related.

When the brain doesn’t want to do math

In childhood, particular regions of the brain develop to specialize in number processing and mathematical thinking. For children with dyscalculia, the development of these specialized regions of the brain does not occur as it should.

Even as babies, most of us are able to distinguish between different quantities. This is a basic skill that paves the way for an elementary understanding of numbers. Without this skill, it is impossible for school-age children to learn how to link a perceived number of objects with a number word or a written Arabic numeral and to visualize a number line. When we solve our first math problems as children, we predominantly engage the front (anterior) regions of the brain, which assume particular sub-functions and are responsible for storing knowledge. This frees up the rear (posterior) regions of the brain and creates capacity for processing complex, more difficult mathematical tasks. In children with dyscalculia, this specialization of the posterior regions of the brain is stifled. While dyscalculia sufferers need to focus intensely and count out numbers, their classmates quickly arrive at the correct result. This laborious counting out of numbers is tiring and time-consuming for the anterior regions of the brains and is also highly prone to error. If multiple problems are required to be solved in a short time, the anterior regions quickly become overloaded – and the resulting anxiety further slows down the thought processes, decreasing the capacity available for storing automated knowledge and skills in the posterior regions. A truly vicious cycle!


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