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Lousy in Math? Here are the Possible Reasons Why

Do your palms start sweating when it comes time to figure out what to leave for a tip after you eat out? Or do you carry a calculator with you to do even a quick addition problem, shrugging and saying to anyone who's around, "I'm just not good at math"?

You're not alone. Math may be the most-loathed subject when it comes to American adults and students alike.

Still feel like you're being called to the blackboard whenever you have to figure out a math problem? Check out the self-teaching guidebook at the end of the article to refresh your math skills and apply them easily to everyday situations.

"There's a general math phobia in the public,'' said Chris Cox, math coordinator for Kalamazoo Public Schools. "No parent would ever say, `I just can't read.' But there's a common acceptance of not doing well in math, and that that's OK. Yet math is a critical subject."

Your Brain may be to Blame

It turns out there's an area of the brain called the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) that is necessary for you to process numerical information and conceive of numbers. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology and the University College London recently found that the IPS helps us determine how many of something there is, as opposed to how much.

The difference may seem minimal, but it actually greatly affects your ability to do math. Fulvia Castelli, a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology and lead author of the paper, explains using an example of a supermarket checkout line.

"Imagine how you really pick the shortest checkout line," says Castelli. "You could count the number of shoppers in each line, in which case you'd be thinking discretely in terms of numerosity. But if you're a hurried shopper, you probably take a quick glance at each line and pick the one that seems the shortest. In this case you're thinking in terms of continuous quantity."

How Many and How Much

To find the difference between looking at things in terms of 'how many' or 'how much' the researchers had study participants make estimates of quantity while under an MRI scan.

They were shown a series of blue and green flashes or a chessboard with blue and green rectangles, then asked to estimated whether there was more green or blue.

When the participants were shown separate colors, researchers found, the brain automatically counts the objects present. However, when a continuous light or a blurred chessboard was shown, the brain estimates how much blue or green is there (as opposed to counting).

When this activity is abnormal, researchers say that dyscalculia, a condition in which a person is unable to deal with numbers, may result. Essentially, the person is unable to assess how many things there are. Castelli explains:

"We think this identifies the brain activity specific to estimating the number of things. This is probably also a brain network that underlies arithmetic, and when it's abnormal, may be responsible for dyscalculia. Of course, dyscalculics can learn to count. But where most people can immediately tell that nine is bigger than seven, anyone with dcyscalculia may have to count the objects to be sure.

Similarly, dyscalculics are much slower than people in general when they have to say how many objects there are in a set. This affects everyday life, from the time when a child is struggling to keep up with arithmetic lessons in school to the time when an adult is trying to deal with money."

Go ahead, count them! When it comes to doing math, experts say there's nothing wrong with using your fingers.

Math Anxiety

Some people also suffer from math anxiety, which is defined as having feelings of tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in ordinary life and academic situations.

This can arise from a fear of public embarrassment at getting the wrong answer to a math problem or having to figure math problems more quickly than you're comfortable with because of a deadline or timed exam. Either way, it can cause a person to lose self-confidence.

While everyone experiences some math anxiety now and again, experts say severe math anxiety is actually a learned emotional response, stemming from feeling anxious in a classroom setting. Many people (and even math teachers) may also instill the belief in young children that math just "isn't for everybody" and can be a struggle (for instance, when children see their parents struggling with numbers for paying bills, taxes, etc., but not using them for pleasant things, like cooking).

Tips for Everyday Math

If you or someone you know has a math phobia, feels they just "can't do math," or just loathes the thought of crunching numbers, check out "All the Math You'll Ever Need: A Self-Teaching Guide."

Written by Steve Slavin, Ph.D, a professor of economics at Union Country College in Cranford, New Jersey, this book will refresh your practical math skills with examples based on everyday situations and give you simple ways to:

  • Figure discounts

  • Calculate mortgage interest rates

  • Work out time, rate and distance problems

Finally, don't be ashamed to use tools that can help you with adding, subtracting and more. A calculator would apply here (get one small enough to keep in your purse or pocket), as would computer programs that do math automatically for you and, if all else fails, your fingers!

Recommended Reading

10 Key Tax Law Changes You Need to Know For Preparing Your 2005 Taxes

The 10 Dumbest Everyday Mistakes People Make With Their Money


Kalamazoo Gazette March 27, 2006

Science Daily March 22, 2006

The Causes and Prevention of Math Anxiety

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