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Becoming a Mathematcian with a disability?

  1. Jan 15, 2010 #1
    Hello. The reason I'm posting is to gain some perspective and advice on a problem I am facing. For a long time I have struggled with my education, and recently I had an appointment with a Psychologist. He was actually a neuropsych, and I had some tests that he administered. He didn't specifically test for learning difficulties, but when he saw the results of the tests I did have (this is what he said), he said that there was a good chance that I have dyscalculia. He said that he would have to do further testing, and that would be at a later date if I wanted it. I have been reading up about this condition, and it does seem to make some sense to me.

    I have never been good at mental arithmetic, or telling the time via an analogue clock and it seems that there could be something to it. The Psychologist in question is actually quite well versed in this area, so I trust his judgement. In the tests that I took, I scored very badly on anything to do with computation, but very highly on diagrammatic reasoning/non verbal intelligence. The Psych said that these scores could indicate an ability to function well at the higher levels of math with abstract concepts. (I would love to hear any reelvant information on this, as I can't find much info if I'm honest.)

    I have a friend, and he has an uncle that was visting him recently, and the uncle in question is a mathematician. I didn't spend much time with him, but he did show me some information on some pretty cool stuff to do with mathematics and he got me thinking that I would like to do the sort of work he does.

    I'm hoping that this will all pull together and sound sort of cohesive in a minute -

    Today I was evaluating my needs about buying a new phone, and I was trying to work out how much saving there would be buying a phone without a contract versus buying a phone on a price plan. I could never do this in my head, so I started working it out on paper. It was only basic additon and when I got my result, I checked it via a calculator - It was wrong. :( Turns out that I had got some numbers the wrong way round and miscalculated. I have been thinking about this a lot, and in all common sense how can someone who can't even add a few digits together ever hope to be a mathematician? I don't think I'm being overly hard on myself, just trying to be realistic.

    I would really like some outside perspective on this - I don't know what I should do.

    Here's hoping for some advice. :)

  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 15, 2010 #2
    first of all asking a psychologist if you have a mental disorder is like asking a car salesman if you need a new car. these people just LOVE to diagnose people. i would cancel all future appointments you have with this guy unless you have a significant amount of money you are wanting to get rid of. if you think you would like to do the kind of work your friend's uncle does then certainly you can do it! basic arithmetic is trivial and not at all indicative of ability to do the higher level maths you would be involved with as a mathematician.
    Last edited: Jan 15, 2010
  4. Jan 15, 2010 #3
    I understand your plight, and I can only tell you this.

    Practice your math skills and try to get them better. Put A LOT of energy in your math skills and try to give up on mindless entertainment.
  5. Jan 15, 2010 #4
    Yea I share the same distrust of psychologists stated by someone above. I've never known anybody who walked out of a psychologists office with some kind of diagnosis. And I've never known somebody to walk out of a psychiatrists office without getting seriously drugged up but that's a separate story. That said I'm sure there's some truth to your situation. Maybe somebody on here has a similar condition, in which case you should probably listen to them. Barring that, I don't see any answer to your question except for you to give it a try.
  6. Jan 15, 2010 #5
    I clicked on this thread thinking you had an actual disability. Stephen Hawking has a disability. You write numbers in the wrong order.

    I'd seriously like to see what would happen if you called yourself "disabled" to somebody like Dr. Hawking. He'd run you over in his wheelchair. You might write things backwards, but at least you can write!
  7. Jan 15, 2010 #6
    Mathematics... real math has almost nothing to do with numbers at all. Most people think math is all about numbers because you start off learning numbery things and not many people pursue it further. But once you get into real math you will realize its completely different than being good at adding or multiplying. Honestly, no mathematician cares if someone can do a lot of arithmetic in their head.

    There are 2 different types of math. People refer to things like calculating a cell phone bill as "math" but to a mathematician that sort of a thing isn't math. What I am getting at here is that being good or bad at arithmetic is completely irrelevant to being good at math (real math). So don't let that prevent you from doing what you want. At the same time, I wouldn't try to become a mathematician just because a psychologist said you may be good with abstract concepts.
  8. Jan 15, 2010 #7
    Not that this really helps, but my dad would always tell me calculus is easy, algebra is hard, arithmetic is impossible.

    Whenever I miss problems on a test, I can guarantee 9/10 it's with the arithmetic.

    If whatever your uncle showed you seemed interesting, go out and try to learn it. Take some classes. See how they work out.

    To me math is practice. Just because you can't add doesn't you won't be able to do it better with some work.

    And like most others said, please don't listen to this Psychologist you saw.
  9. Jan 15, 2010 #8


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    I feel like you're getting a lot of bad advice about dealing with learning disabilities, and psychiatry in general, but I really don't have the knowledge to say something accurate -- hopefully someone more knowledgeable will come along.

    As the others have said, doing arithmetic is not math -- it's merely arithmetic. To paraphrase a joke I know, there are probably number theorists who haven't actually added two numbers in many years!

    P.S. how many of the people condemning psychiatry noticed the psychiatrist said that the OP could probably do quite well in higher math?
  10. Jan 15, 2010 #9


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    Why is it that everyone assumes the psychologist is wrong? It would obviously be wise to get a second opinion, but if you really have dyscalculia then that would certainly affect the way you should approach learning math in terms of special training etc.

    Whether or not it would make it impossible to become a mathematician is another issue, it would almost certainly make it more difficult. Although it is true that modern math is generally quite "abstract" and does not really rely on numbers, it is also true that you do have use a lot of arithmetics in order to learn the "basics"; someone with severe dyscalculia would presumably be unable even to solve an equation simply because he/she wouldn't be able to perform the kind of manipulations everyone else takes for granted (such as 2x+3x-x=4x) without getting it wrong.

    Also, the fact that you can write a text like in the first post (which is well written) but at the same time struggle with telling time via an analogue clock would -at least to me- seem to indicate some some form of "specific" disability like dyscalculia.
  11. Jan 15, 2010 #10
    Its not so much that I think the psychologist is wrong, I am kind of with hurkyl. However, I think the psychologist saying you may function well in higher level math should have NO weight in you decision to do math. Just the same as ability to do arithmetic should have little to no weight in your decision to math.

    If you go into some undergraduate class and talk to people I bet near 100% will say... "my arithmetic is just awful I always mess it up." People mess up arithmetic things all the time... seriously all the time. Even professors mess up those things in lecture, and I mean things like 5+7. The point is no one cares.

    I remember on a Linear Algebra test we had to multiply matrices. This was like the most missed question on the test and it is basically just arithmetic.

    Bottom line is, there is only one way to find out if you can do higher level math. So if you want to try then try. That's all there is.
  12. Jan 16, 2010 #11


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    As far as I know, that is simply not true -- merely trying hard is not an effective way to deal with a learning disability. One needs to learn about their disability and how to circumvent it -- and may require some help from one's teachers to modify exercises and test problems so they are more suitable. (Or, at least, for his teachers to be informed about whatever quirks stem from the disability and his coping mechanisms)

    This is why it's important to get advice from a professional who actually knows about these sorts of issues -- i.e. a psychiatrist -- so that he can go about things in an effective manner.
  13. Jan 16, 2010 #12
    Trying hard is enough! That is all there is too it.
    And yes i did notice that the psychologist did say he was probably capable of doing higher level math but i also noticed what amount to nothing more than sales pitches about further tests and future appointments. This "learning disability" is nothing but a greedy scam with a ridiculous name perpetrated by an arm of the medical industry mafia.
  14. Jan 16, 2010 #13

    Vanadium 50

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    A logical consequence of that is that people don't have learning disabilities; they just aren't trying hard enough. Reinforced here:

    If you want to support this position, you need to explain why there are genetic markers associated with dyslexia. Is there are gene for "not trying hard enough?"
  15. Jan 16, 2010 #14


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    Now you are just being ignorant. Do you actually know anyone who is dyslectic? "Trying" has nothing to do with it, what one CAN do is get special training and learn techniques to cope with the condition. It is well established that there is a biological reason for these conditions and it has absolutely nothing to do with being "lazy", fMRI scans quite clearly show a difference in the way parts of the brain works.
    There are a lot of examples of highly intelligent and ambitious people who who are dyslectic or have dyscalculia
  16. Jan 16, 2010 #15
    Even though this is true, 99% of the time those people still gets it right and that is during stressed circumstances where the focus isn't on the arithmetic's. If you get it wrong even just 25% of the time you will never be able to finish your maths degree. Just multiplying two 3x3 matrices is 27 multiplications and then adding those together 3 and 3 all the time keeping track on which numbers should go where.
    If you make something wrong 1% of the times it would mean that you make an error roughly every other matrix multiplication.
  17. Jan 16, 2010 #16
    I didn't mean, try hard and pretend like the disability doesn't exist. I meant, try doing it with acknowledgment of the disability with whatever extra things you might need. Like modified tests/exercises as stated above. Colleges have a special needs thing where people can get the help they need.

    I am not on the same level as some of the people in this thread who think the psychologist is on crack, but I do think some people like to be categorized as blah blah blah. Like, "Oh, I have ADD because I simply can't focus while studying." Or, "man, I can hardly sleep I must have insomnia." I know that people legitimately have these disabilities and the OP very well could have this one, but at the same time I think people like to be categorized into boxes and I think people like categorizing people into boxes.

    If you want to do math you should try. (<- doesn't imply disregarding your disability if you have one.)
  18. Jan 16, 2010 #17
    Lots of different issues here:

    One thing about a diagnosis is that it can be helpful. If you find out that you happen to be nearsighted, then you wear glasses. If you run a battery of tests and find out that there is some skill that you are bad at, then this is a good thing if you can do whatever the mental equivalent is of wearing glasses. If you get the piece of paper and say "oh I'm doomed" than this is bad.

    Also "trying hard" is not enough, if you are not trying the right thing.

    Something else to realize is that we are at the stage in history where if you run enough tests on anyone you'll find that there is something "sub-optimal" about their brain, so I think we really have to question the distinction between "normal" and "disabled."
  19. Jan 16, 2010 #18
    I should point out that I'm quite hideously bad at arithmetic, which is why I let the computer do that part of the problem.

    One other thing about cell phone prices. Don't feel bad about not being about to calculate those. One trend that banks, cell phone companies, car salesman have figured out is that they design their rate plans to make it deliberately hard for people to figure out what they are paying. There are people in the world who are full time employed to make it hard for you to figure out how much you are paying, and they'll exploit any mental trick they can to squeeze money out of you.
  20. Jan 16, 2010 #19
    Agreed. And doubly agree about the last part.
  21. Jan 16, 2010 #20


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    Okay, first thing first. Finish getting the full evaluation to determine for certain IF you have a learning disability and the EXACT nature of it. As the psychologist pointed out, the preliminary testing might indicate it, but if that's not what they were testing for, it might not be accurate. That's why they aren't making a firm diagnosis without further testing.

    As for the perceptions by many others here that "everyone" seeking a psychologist or psychiatrist comes out with medications and a diagnosis of something wrong, that really isn't true. However, because there is such a stigma associated with seeing a psychiatrist, it is true that a LOT of people seeing them really DO have a problem that requires their treatment, and they finally sought the help when the problem got to the point that they couldn't cope with it any longer. Rarely does someone seek psychiatric evaluation the way they'd get an annual physical from their general practitioner, unless they are in a particular line of work that requires it.

    Now, IF you do indeed have a learning disability, at least if you're in the US (and I think several other countries too), by LAW, reasonable accommodations need to be provided once you identify yourself as having a disability. Please, if you are told you can have accommodation of some sort, take advantage of it! I've seen students really struggle in a course because they didn't want to get special advantages and thought they should just "tough it out" without accommodation, and when they finally realize they can't do it that way, and accept the approved accommodations, they suddenly succeed.

    Dyscalculia is not just being "bad" at math, it means your brain doesn't process numbers right and scrambles them, much as someone with dyslexia sees letters scrambled. As you've already figured out on your own, this is going to make it difficult to do arithmetic in your head or by hand. But, as you've also figured out, there's an easy accommodation for you...using a calculator. You may also qualify for things like extra time to complete exams so you have more time to double check your work.

    You can also then work with the psychologist/psychiatrist on other forms of coping that will help you work around your disability.

    The mathematicians would know better than I whether these are things that would affect your ability to do higher math. But, from hanging around these forums a long time, I get the impression that things like logic and abstract reasoning are more important than the actual numbers for higher level math.

    Of course, none of this guarantees you WILL be good at higher math, it just means that with some reasonable accommodations, you'll have as much chance of being good at it as anyone else who starts out as a math major.
  22. Jan 17, 2010 #21
    However, one thing that does seem to be true is that people that are gifted in math and physics seem to end up with higher than usual rates of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in themselves or in their families.

    One problem with this situation is that once you are labelled, it sometimes creates a stigma that is pretty annoying (i.e. is it OK for people with bipolar disorder to just be sad, and people with dyscalcula to just be bad at math). The reason that psychiatry is sometimes useful is that you can end up in situations where something relatively simple has a lot of benefits.

    But where it becomes interesting is that if we reach a point where we can take the brain of someone that is just "bad at math" or even "normal at math" and the identify the specific brain structures that cause that to happen. We are pretty close to something like this, and as our understanding of the brain increases, it's going to pose a lot of problems as the difference between disabled and normal or even normal and genius become blurred.
  23. Jan 17, 2010 #22

    George Jones

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    I know this gets stated often, but are there published scientific studies that back this up.
  24. Jan 17, 2010 #23
    :0) I wanted to come back and post a message earlier, but have kept getting sidetracked. I want to address quite a few of the points that have been raised, so I'll try and fit them all in. Firstly, years ago I was actually almost diagnosed with bipolar disorder but the dx wasn't right and It was changed to the correct (and current) dx of depression. I'm not sure if the link is still there, but they are both mental health problems so make of that what you will.

    The problems with my mathematics ability has existed for a long time. For a lot of my life I simply avoided Mathematics because I couldn't do the basic work that was needed to get to a higher level. I am probably below a 7 year old when it comes to manipulating numbers in my head, and still cannot accurately read a clock face. Now to me (not a healthcare pro) it seems that there is a problem somewhere. When I try to manipulate numbers in my head, the following happens - Say I'm adding two numbers together. I have the numbers in my mind, and start to do the calculating. A few seconds later it feels as if I'm tripping up over myself and my numbers get all twisted, and then I lose what I have already thought of. Then I'm right back to the start. Same thing happens over and over. Like when a baby starts to walk, and walks a little too fast, gets tangled with his legs and falls over. Except it's not the legs that get tangled, its the numbers and my brain. This explanation makes sense to me, although I can see how it would have to be experienced to really "get" it.

    The opinion of the psych really just gave a name to what I have been experiencing for a long time. I don't feel he was trying to pigeonhole me or sell me more services. I said earlier that I tried to do the calculations on paper and failed - to me (and granted I'm not really qualified to make this call) this seems as if it would make for a disaster as a Mathematician - If your calculations are not correct, then how can you do your job?

    I wasn't trying to say that my problems are anything like SH, far from it - however there are levels of difficulty, and I just thought that asking a question here maybe someone had come accross (or suffered) a similar situation and could offer some tips or advice.

    The reason I mentioned the level of ability in the tests was to try and guage from people far more knowledgeable about the subject if it was something they agreed with/used and could relate to. I also understand that as a Mathematcian a good high IQ is needed to perform at that level and that was also something I hoped may get a mention. The fact is that I'm going to get a second opinion on my problem, and hopefully it may shed some more light on it.

    I probably have missed some points, but feel you may get the gist of what I'm saying.

    Thank you.
  25. Jan 17, 2010 #24
    There are tons of studies on the relationship between bipolar disorder and writers. Start here and the look up references


    There are no published studies that I know of between schizophrenia and theoretical math and physics, but it's something that lots of people within the field know but don't really like to talk about, and it's hard to do studies like these because there aren't many theoretical physicists and you get into privacy issues.

    Anecodotally, there aren't many theoretical physicists that have been diagonized with schizophrenia, but there does seem to be a higher than average instance of physicists with close family members that have the disorder. It's something that someone should study, but it's really hard to do.
  26. Jan 17, 2010 #25
    That's where therapy comes in. Education people have been studying how to teach people with learning disorders for years, and at this point there's a pretty good body of literature on it. Good teachers and therapists know what treatment plans work to get your math skills up to par.
    As moonbear was saying, schools in the states all have ways to accommodate students with learning disorders, and many have an Office of Disability Services or Student Accessibility Center or something of that sort which provides all sorts of support and services, like counseling, testing accommodations, and tutoring services.
    Last edited: Jan 18, 2010
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