Getting To The Bottom Of Dyscalculia—And Of Our Number Sense

Mathematician Brian Butterworth is on a crusade to understand the number deficit called dyscalculia—and to help those who have it, reports Ewen Callaway in the journal Nature:

“Researchers estimate that as much as 7% of the population has dyscalculia, which is marked by severe difficulties in dealing with numbers despite otherwise normal intelligence.

That combination has attracted neuroscientists such as Butterworth, who believe that the disorder illuminates the inner workings of the brain’s number sense—the ability to understand and manipulate quantities. This sense is every bit as innate as vision or hearing, yet scientists disagree over its cognitive and neural basis, a debate that dyscalculics may help to settle.

For Butterworth, scientific curiosity eventually gave way to advocacy. “I thought, it’s not enough to just try to identify the cause,” he says. In the past decade, he has crusaded to get dyscalculia recognized—by parents, teachers, politicians and anyone who will listen. And he is using his scientific insights into the condition to help dyscalculic children. ‘What’s the point of telling someone they have dyscalculia if you can’t help them?’ he says.

By developing treatments for dyscalculia, Butterworth hopes to test competing theories about the cognitive basis of numeracy. If, as he believes, dyscalculia is at heart a deficiency of basic number sense and not of memory, attention or language, as others have proposed, then nurturing the roots of number sense should help dyscalculics. ‘It may be the case that what these kids need is just much more practice than the rest of us,’ Butterworth says.” (Read more here.)

So interesting that research on dyscalculia may not only help those afflicted with the condition, but also help illuminate how an understanding of numbers and math develops in the human brain in general.  

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