Did you hate algebra in high school? Maybe your teacher or parents told you it was because you’re right-brained, but a team of researchers from Georgetown University Medical and Stanford University believe being bad at math may not just be an academic weakness, but actually a disability. Their findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, reveal how different the brain is for those who don’t have strengths in mathematics and what it could mean for their overall cognitive health.

A math disability occurs when there are certain abnormalities in the brain designed to support procedural memory. Researchers identified the brain structures basal ganglia and areas in the frontal and spatial lobes, which could be responsible for the inability to process math problems in the same way dyslexic children struggle with word order. Researchers are calling it the “procedural deficit hypothesis” that may explain why those who are bad at math also struggle with short-term memory, which causes people to have a difficult time keeping track of numbers.

Math Disability Being bad at math could reveal a cognitive problem with your memory and brain processing. Photo courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

"Various domains, including math, reading, and language, seem to depend on both declarative and procedural memory,” said the study’s lead author Michael T. Ullman, a professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University, in a statement. “Evidence suggests that when procedural memory is impaired,  children may have math disability, dyslexia, or developmental language disorder, though declarative memory often compensates to some extent."

Math disabilities and dyslexia may be related to cognitive problems because learning depends on the brain’s procedural and declarative memory systems. The declarative system is also the part of the brain that’s used when learning how to drive, which means having a weakness in one part of your everyday life may be able to give you a peak into your brain’s abilities or, in this case, disabilities.

"We believe that understanding the role of memory systems in these disorders should lead to diagnostic advances and possible targets for interventions,” Ullman said. “In fact, aspects of math that tend to be automatized, such as arithmetic, are problematic in children with math disability. Moreover, since these children often also have dyslexia or developmental language disorder, the disorders may share causal mechanisms."

Source: Ullman MT and Evans TM. Frontiers in Psychology. 2016.