There are definitely those of us (and you know who you are) who struggled through math back in school. Memories of attempting to learn the formulas, principles, and concepts of mathematical topics from geometry to calculus and beyond might inspire shudders or groans. But now, scientists may be onto something that could lead to improvements in the way we approach math learning.
In a recent study at Oxford University in England, researchers discovered that by directing a minute electrical current to a particular section of the brain they could improve certain mathematical skills in their subjects. Specifically, when a 1 milliamp current was applied to the scalp at the right parietal lobe (above the ear, near the top of the skull), the subjects’ ability to solve numerical problems markedly increased.
The 15 adult volunteers for the experiment were randomly split into three groups. The first had the electrical impulse, otherwise known as transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), applied for 20 minutes to the right parietal lobe. The second group received the same 20 minutes of TDCS but it was applied to the left parietal lobe. The third group only had 30 seconds of electrical stimulation applied with no TDCS, functioning as a control population. Since TDCS subjects only feel 15 to 30 seconds of tingling then acclimate to the sensation as you would with white noise, the control group had no idea that their treatment was any different.
While the TDCS was being applied, the subjects were learning to use nine new numerical symbols in one-and-a-half- to two-hour training sessions. After each of these lessons, the participants were tested in a variety of ways to determine how much knowledge they retained regarding the symbols. The group that received their TDCS on the right parietal lobe demonstrated by far the most facility with using the symbols in testing. The control group exhibited some skill with the new symbols. And the group that was stimulated on the left parietal lobe displayed little or no retention of what they were taught about the symbols. In fact, their ability levels were on par with what the average six-year-old child could do…which is odd considering how clever six-your-olds are!
In addition, the positive results seem to have lasted. The researchers brought the volunteers back in for follow-up testing six months after the initial experiment was complete and the group that received the TDCS on the right lobe still maintained their knowledge of the symbols.
The difference strictly involved only the symbols taught and capability to perform such tasks as order them by value and complete puzzles in which they were key. None of the participants in any of the groups showed changes in their general mathematical abilities, so it seems unlikely that we can use these findings to create numerical super-geniuses. Although, who knows? If scientists venture into murkier waters, it could eventually be possible to find a way to apply currents or, dare I say, implant computer chips in just the right part of the brain to induce mathematical brilliance in certain subjects.
On the flip side, we are back to all those people we know who have a hard time with math. Multiple studies have shown that roughly 20% of us have trouble with numbers that goes beyond our ability to solve complex equations. It can affect everyday situations such as budgeting and managing household finances.
The most extreme version of this difficulty — affecting approximately 6% of us — is called dyscalculia. It is similar, in a way, to dyslexia except, obviously, involving numbers rather than letters. Considered a verified learning disability, dyscalculia occurs in people with every IQ across the spectrum. Those diagnosed with it may not even be able to tell time, count out change, or add single digit numbers without resorting to counting on their fingers.
Further research in this area could lead to ways to help those who struggle with all kinds of math issues. It may also benefit children who are having a hard time acquiring basic number skills or those adults who have diminished mathematical abilities due to stroke or some form of cognitive decline. But who are we kidding. Truth be told, it would more likely be used as a way for states to raise student test scores in an attempt to extract more “education funding” from the Federal government. What can I say? I’m a perpetual optimist.