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Numbers, numbers everywhere…


Numbers are integral to our understanding of the world. Just look at a newspaper.


A story on page 5 celebrates the 200 children aged 12 –14 who have just won a £1500 scholarship towards sports equipment for their school.


Page 14 offers a computer with a160GB hard drive for £550 – just call 0800 567489.


Page 36 lists ‘The100 best movies of all time’ on Channel 4 at 9.30pm, and the front page asks why police in the UK solved just 26% of crimes in 2004 - 5.



Professor Brian Butterworth in his book The Mathematical Brain suggests ‘At a very, very rough guess, I would say that I process about 1,000 numbers an hour, about 16,000 numbers per waking day, nearly 6 million a year’.


What is dyscalculia?

People with dyscalculia have difficulties with numbers. The latest studies estimate over 5% of the population has dyscalculia, equating to more than 3 million UK citizens. Most have never been diagnosed.

Dyscalculia is found in people from all backgrounds, cultures and levels of intellectual ability. Interestingly, about 40% of dyslexics also have dyscalculia.


How are people with dyscalculia different?

Dyscalculia is something you are born with.

Someone with dyscalculia has specific difficulty with numbers, despite good performance in other areas.


They may have great difficulties with:

  • Arithmetic, for example 4+8 or 22 x4
  • Prices in shops (including tendering the correct money and receiving change).
  • A general intuitive sense of numbers and what they represent, eg: which is bigger, 2240 or 2660? Does 5 x 206 = approximately 1000 or approximately 10 000.
  • Instantly number judgements – eg: ‘seeing’ there are 4 cups on the table (a dyscalculic may need to count them).
  • Phone numbers, dates and times.


Studies have shown that having dyscalculia makes it more difficult to achieve success in employment than having dyslexia.

Click here for the dyscalculia screener offered by the Department for Education and Skills


Why are people scared of maths?

Dyscalculia has only recently been recognised, in the same way dyslexia was 30 years ago. Many people have been labelled (or label themselves) stupid because they can’t do ‘simple sums’.


When a group of 9 year olds were asked why they disliked maths lessons they said ‘you feel stupid’ and ‘I wish that I was like a clever person’. The emotional effects are wide-reaching and often affect a child’s entire attitude to learning.


Brain damage and dyscalculia

Scientists think that your maths ability resides in your parietal lobes towards the back of your brain, near your ears. It seems that these systems are abnormal in dyscalculics.


In his book, the mathematical brain, Brian Butterworth’s describes the intriguing case of Signora Gaddi.


Signora Gaddi cannot calculate or compare numbers, or even read or write numbers over 4. The alert 59-year-old Italian woman recently had a stroke that damaged the left parietal lobe of her brain and since then has become largely hopeless with arithmetic.


Signora Gaddi also has difficulties with numbers smaller than 4. When shown two wooden blocks, she had to laboriously count on her fingers to say how many blocks there were. Yet, she performs normally on many other tests that do not involve numbers.


The world’s largest maths experiment

Professor Brian Butterworth and Dr Penny Fidler set up the world’s largest maths experiment within the science centre At Bristol.


18 000 visitors took part in the fun test which showed that girls were quicker than boys at some types of maths.


Click here to find out about the experiment

Click here to see the results.

Dr Penny Fidler

Professor Brian Butterworth


Babies can do maths!

It seems even babies have a sense of numbers.


By watching their gaze, researchers can find out whether babies can discriminate between numbers.


If the baby looks away, it indicates familiarity or boredom whereas staring intently indicates surprise or interest in something new.


Infants even in the first week of life will notice when the number of objects changes. It seems we are indeed born with an innate sense of numbers.