11 Facts About the Math Disorder Dyscalculia

istock
istock

Chances are you’ve heard of the reading disability dyslexia. It reportedly affects up to 15 percent of the population, and public figures from the fictional Jaime Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones to real-life comic Eddie Izzard have grappled with the learning disorder. But have you ever heard of dyscalculia, the math disability? Probably not, even though up to six percent of elementary school students in the U.S. may struggle with it.

A big part of the general population's unfamiliarity with dyscalculia has to do with our culture’s general discomfort with numbers, and our ingrained belief that math—compared to reading—is just supposed to be hard. Dr. Gavin Price, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University who has researched dyscalculia in several countries, says, "When I teach classes, I’ll ask at the beginning, 'How many people think they’re not good at math, they’re bad at math?' And half of them put their hands up. Then I ask, 'Are any of you bad at reading?' And nobody puts their hand up."

Dr. Edward Hubbard, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, echoes this sentiment, and adds that attitudes toward math may play a part not just in our overall lack of dyscalculia awareness, but in the fact that dyscalculia research is at least two decades behind dyslexia research.

“I think some of it is cultural attitudes towards math,” says Hubbard, who has researched dyscalculia in France and the United States and heads up his university’s Educational Neuroscience lab, which is embarking on a new dyscalculia study. “If you look around, the number of people who sort of say, 'I’m bad at math,' and laugh about it, or will say, without batting an eye, 'I’m just not a math person,' is striking.”

So, in the interest of raising dyscalculia awareness, begin your crash course on the little-known mathematical disorder with these 11 facts.

1. The term dyscalculia was coined in the 1940s, but didn’t really become fully recognized until the 1974 work of Czechoslovakian researcher Ladislav Kosc.

Kosc defined the disorder as "a structural disorder of mathematical abilities" caused by impairment to the parts of the brain used in mathematical calculations, without simultaneous impairment to one's general mental abilities. (In layman's terms: You're bad at math because parts of your brain aren't working properly, but you're not otherwise mentally handicapped.) Today, some research communities also use the terms “math dyslexia” and “math learning disability” to refer to the condition.

2. There are two types of dyscalculia.

Most people diagnosed with the disorder have developmental dyscalculia, which means they were born with it. But, with what's known as acquired dyscalculia, the disorder can also arise later in life, usually as the result of a stroke or injury.

3. Struggling with matrices in algebra or flunking calculus in college doesn’t usually mean you have dyscalculia.

This disability tends to impede your most basic skills. “Somebody who has dyscalculia will struggle with the most basic arithmetic facts, 5+2=7,” Hubbard says. “They will struggle to tell you seven is larger than five. We’ll see them counting on their fingers for basic addition.”

4. Dyscalculia may be rooted in the brain's parietal lobe.

What causes dyscalculia? To date, the most popular theory maintains that dyscalculia is connected to an inability to judge quantities, a sense that is concentrated in the parietal lobe.

“One of the theories that exists is that dyscalculia is really caused by an impairment in what’s known as either the number sense or the approximate number system,” Price says. “And that system is what allows us to know that, for example, a group of five apples is more than three apples. It allows us to compare, and order, and process quantities without the use of verbal symbols or labels."

"And so what we did [in a study in Finland]," Price continues, "was scan these dyscalculic kids while they were doing those type of tasks, and we compared their brain activation to the typically developing kids, and we found that indeed this region in the parietal cortex, the intraparietal sulcus, behaved atypically in these kids when they were processing these non-symbolic numerical magnitudes.”

5. Researchers have been able to induce dyscalculia in patients.

In 2007, a group of researchers at University College London were able to engender temporary dyscalculia in people who don’t have the disorder by using transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. TMS is often used to treat depression, and involves placing a large electromagnetic coil against the scalp.

In the study, researchers applied TMS to the right parietal lobe while their subjects were comparing quantities, and found that the stimulation briefly made it hard for the subject to tell if one quantity was bigger than the other.

6. Dyscalculia may manifest itself in different ways. 

While the above research shows that dyscalculia is closely associated with problems in the parietal lobe that affect one's understanding of the number system, researchers like Hubbard think some people who suffer from dyscalculia might feel the disorder differently.

“The problem may not be with number sense itself, but with linking number symbols with number sense,” Hubbard says. “Maybe it differs across other people. Maybe there is a subgroup of people for whom their difficulties are in the number system itself, for other people it’s in symbols.” 

7. Dyscalculia is represented in pop culture.

While dyslexic characters are much more common in popular culture, there are some examples of dyscalculics to be found. Fans of Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation may remember Liberty Van Zandt having it, and X-Men fans may know that Wolverine's sidekick Jubilee is a whiz at manipulating pyrotechnics but not numbers.

8. Dyscalculia doesn't discriminate by gender.

You may have noticed that both our pop culture examples were female, but dyscalculia, at least at this juncture, does not appear to have a gender gap.

“My sense is that it’s pretty even. But at the same time, I feel like the gender ratio has been less a focus of investigation than it was for dyslexia,” Hubbard says, adding that research saying boys are more prone to dyslexia than girls is “pretty well supported.”

Hubbard is aware that this flies in the face of the (offensive) stereotype that women are worse at math than men—a generalization that seems to have little basis in fact. “What we see is that the gender differences [in mathematical ability] have gotten smaller and smaller. As we have better role models for girls in math, we’ve had greater opportunities and fewer impediments to girls being able to do well. The differences that we’re seeing are largely due to cultural differences.”

9. However, some groups are at greater risk of dyscalculia than others.

People with Turner syndrome, epilepsy, and Fragile X syndrome are more likely to have dyscalculia. You are also at greater risk for dyscalculia if you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), if your mother drank during her pregnancy, or if you were born prematurely.

10. It can be tough to diagnose.

“One of the problems, one of the challenges with dyscalculia, the reason that it hasn’t gotten the same attention [as dyslexia], is that it is a highly co-morbid disorder,” Price says. “Often, people who are bad at math are bad at a number of things.”

But while a diagnosis may be difficult to come by, treating a patient's other conditions may also alleviate his or her dyscalculia. For example, one study of people with ADHD who both were and weren’t dyscalculic found that putting them on a stimulant improved their calculating ability, but not their basic numerical skills.

11. There is no cure for dyscalculia.

But don't lose hope! Dyscalculics can learn math, even if they may always struggle with parts of it because of their neurological differences. Luckily, you use more than the parietal part of your brain when doing math, Price says. “Multiple skills come under the umbrella of math, and all of these things will engage all of the lobes of the brain.”

Therefore, early detection is key in helping children cope with dyscalculia. And for adults struggling with the disorder, a shift in attitude may be the first step in overcoming the obstacles dyscalculia presents.

“When we think of struggling with reading, most adults would not think of going back and listening to the sounds of language,” Hubbard says. “Similarly, if you recognize that you’re struggling with math, your first thought isn’t probably that you should go back to trying to see how much stuff is out there, use this basic sense of number that I have, and try to link that to basic number symbol. People would probably try to work at a higher level. What you should really be doing is going back and looking at these foundational skills, things that most teachers, most parents, and most people assume we all just have.”

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Facts About David Fincher's The Social Network for Its 10th Anniversary

Jesse Eisenberg stars in David Fincher's The Social Network (2010).
Jesse Eisenberg stars in David Fincher's The Social Network (2010).
Merrick Morton/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The Social Network—a movie made when Facebook was less than seven years old and the social media era was relatively new—seemed destined to age poorly. But in the decade since its premiere in October 2010, the film’s depiction of the website and its young founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is more relevant than ever.

Even if you haven’t logged onto Facebook in years, the film offers plenty to love, from David Fincher’s detailed direction to Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-winning script. In honor of its 10-year anniversary, here are 10 facts about The Social Network.

1. Aaron Sorkin started writing the script for The Social Network before the book it's based on was published.

Aaron Sorkin makes a cameo in The Social Network (2010).Merrick Morton, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The Social Network is officially an adaptation of The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich's 2009 book detailing the founding of Facebook. But according to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, he had already completed 80 percent of the script by the time he read the book. The project came to him in the form of a 14-page book proposal the publisher was shopping around to filmmakers ahead of the title's release. “I said yes on page three," Sorkin told Deadline in 2011. "That’s the fastest I’ve ever said yes to anything."

Instead of waiting for The Accidental Billionaires to be completed and published, Sorkin started working on the script immediately, doing his own first-hand research for much of the process instead of referring to the book.

2. Shia LaBeouf turned down the role of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.

When Transformers star Shia LaBeouf turned down the role of The Social Network’s lead character, Jesse Eisenberg was hired to play Mark Zuckerberg instead. Superbad's Jonah Hill was another star who came close to being cast in the movie, in his case as Napster founder Sean Parker; ultimately, Fincher decided Hill wasn’t right for the role and cast Justin Timberlake instead.

3. The Social Network wasn’t filmed at Harvard.

Harvard University is integral to the legend of Facebook, and setting the first half of The Social Network there was non-negotiable. Filmmakers ran into trouble, however, when attempting to get the school's blessing. The 1970 adaptation of Love Story been shot there, and damaged the campus; the school has reportedly banned all commercial filming on the premises since then. To get around this, The Social Network crew shot the Harvard scenes at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and two prep schools, Phillips Academy Andover and Milton Academy, in Massachusetts.

4. David Fincher did sneak one shot of Harvard into The Social Network.

To convince the audience that they were indeed seeing Harvard, Fincher couldn’t resist sneaking in a shot of the campus’s iconic architecture. When Jesse Eisenberg runs across Harvard Square (which is not on Harvard property) in the beginning film, some nearby arches (which are on Harvard property) appear in the background. Fincher got the lighting he needed for this scene by hiring a street mime to roll a cart with lights on it onto the campus.

“If security were to stop him, the mime wouldn’t talk," The Social Network’s director of photography Jeff Cronenweth told Variety. "By the time they got him out of there, we would have accomplished our shot.”

5. Natalie Portman gave Aaron Sorkin the inside scoop on Harvard.

Natalie Portman attended Harvard from 1999 to 2003, briefly overlapping with fellow star alum Mark Zuckerberg. While enrolled, she dated a member of one of the university’s elite final clubs, which are an important part of The Social Network’s plot. When she learned that Sorkin was writing the screenplay for the movie, she invited the writer over to hear her insider knowledge. Sorkin gave the actress a shout-out in the final script. During one of the deposition scenes, Eisenberg's Harvard-era Zuckerberg is described as “the biggest thing on a campus that included 19 Nobel Laureates, 15 Pulitzer Prize winners, two future Olympians, and a movie star.”

6. Armie Hammer and his body double went to twin boot camp for The Social Network.

Armie Hammer and Josh Pence (as Armie Hammer) in The Social Network (2010).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Armie Hammer is credited as playing both Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, but he wasn’t acting alone in his scenes. Josh Pence was cast as a body double and Hammer’s face was digitally pasted over his in post-production. For every scene where both twins appear on screen, Hammer and Pence played separate Winklevi, and then they would swap roles and shoot the scene again. This method allowed the characters to physically interact in ways that wouldn’t have been possible with split screens. Pence’s face may be missing from the movie, but his physical performance was still essential to selling the brothers' dynamic. He and Hammer worked with an acting coach for 10 months to nail down the characters’ complementary body language.

7. The Social Network's tagline was changed at the last minute.

For The Social Network’s main poster, designer Neil Kellerhouse made Jesse Eisenberg’s face the focal point. Over it, he superimposed the memorable tagline: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” Originally, the text read “300 million friends,” but it was changed under the assumption that Facebook would hit half a billion users in time for the movie’s October 2010 release.

“We were really hedging our bets," Kellerhouse told IndieWire. "But we scooped them on their own story because right as the film was coming out they got 500 million [members] so we got their publicity as well. It worked out super serendipitously.”

8. Fight Club’s Tyler Durden (kind of) makes a cameo in The Social Network.

Sharp-eyed viewers may have noticed the Easter egg David Fincher snuck into The Social Network. In the scene where Mark Zuckerberg is checking someone’s Facebook to cheat on a test, the name “Tyler Durden” can be seen in the top-left corner of the profile. Tyler Durden is the name of the narrator’s alter ego (played by Brad Pitt) in 1999’s Fight Club. Fincher directed both films.

9. The real Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t a fan of The Social Network.

Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network (2010).Merrick Morton, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The Social Network doesn’t paint Mark Zuckerberg in the most flattering light, and unsurprisingly, the real-life Facebook founder wasn’t happy about it. Following the movie’s release, he called out its “hurtful” inaccuracies, specifically citing the fictional Mara Rooney character that’s used as his motivation for founding the website. But even he admits that some details were spot-on. “It’s interesting what stuff they focused on getting right," Zuckerberg said at a Stanford event. "Like every single fleece and shirt I had in that movie is actually a shirt or fleece that I own.”

10. A sequel to The Social Network is not out of the question.

The Social Network premiered when Facebook was less than a decade old, and the story of the internet giant has only gotten more dramatic since then. Since settling lawsuits with Eduardo Saverin and the Winkelvoss twins, Facebook has been battling scandals related to privacy issues and its influence on the 2016 election. The last 10 years have provided more than enough material for a sequel to The Social Network, and both Aaron Sorkin and Jesse Eisenberg have expressed interest in such a project. As of now, there are no confirmed plans for a follow-up.