The most remarkable thing has been happening since I took up playing the violin at the age of 62. I can now do numbers. Why is this remarkable? It is impressive because I have always referred to myself as numerically dyslexic.
Number dyslexia is a term sometimes used to describe having trouble with maths. However, according to Bob Cunningham, EdM, using the word dyslexia in this case isn’t correct. The term dyslexia refers to difficulty with language, making it hard to read and spell. But sometimes it’s wrongly used as a generic term to describe other difficulties, like problems with numbers and maths.
More correctly termed dyscalculia, the condition involves trouble with something called number sense. Kids might struggle with maths concepts like biggest vs. smallest. They might not understand that the numeral 5 is the same as the word five, and that both represent five separate items or groups of items. They can also struggle to remember mathematical facts.
In my case I unconsciously reversed numbers, which has the effect of almost doubling my phone bill. In addition, I find it difficult to remember strings of numbers. Four number sequences are usually the limit. These two characteristics meant that arithmetic at school was hell for me. Doubly unfortunate when your mother was an accountant who could not understand why her daughter was so dumb at arithmetic, her own favourite subject! In the days before calculators, or adding machines, my mother could add up an enormous column of numbers in her head, getting a perfect answer every time. When I went to ‘help’ her in her office during the school holidays my mother used to give me columns of numbers to add up. It was a task that I loathed. I would add up a column of numbers five times and get five different answers!
When I started high school, my life changed. I began to study mathematics. Letters and symbols replaced the offending numbers and I found that if I attacked the mathematical problems from first principles, I could organise the problem so that I only had to substitute numbers at the very end of the problem. Then it was a simple task, to slowly and methodically check the last few substituted numbers, as many times as necessary, to get a consistent answer. I came to love trigonometry and especially calculus.
Nevertheless, numbers continued to plague me. As an architect I had to triple check everything each time and I used to become extremely tense when I had to do my accounts. My life changed for the better when finally there were enough commissions to be able to afford to employ a life saver. Lisa, my new accountant, understood that some people were numerically challenged and she sees it as her vocation to relieve sufferers of their numerically imposed distress.
Enter the violin. When I started to practice playing the violin regularly I noticed strange cognitive and personality changes. My Jekyll and Hyde relationship with numbers started to dissipate and I stopped getting into a complete state of anxiety when I had to sit down to do my accounts. Recently I have noticed another change for the better – I discovered I was now remembering longer strings of digits. No more do I have to write down every number beyond four digits, in order to transfer it to another document. I can remember up to about six and even eight digits.
Much has been written about brain plasticity (neuroplasticity) and although it is conventional wisdom that musicians can also be good at maths, I cannot find any direct evidence that music assists with maths ability, in adults. However, according to Sarah Wilson, Associate Professor, School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne, there is an emerging idea that music provides an experience which helps to integrate the many functions of our brain. In an interview on ABC Classic FM, she says “This concept of neuroplasticity is where the brain changes with repeated use or … when we listen to music or engage in music.”
Obviously the jury is still out, but it would be great to hear of others who have experienced similar “brain” changes through playing music.
Some definitions of terms used in this post:
dyslexia: a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence.
dyscalculia: severe difficulty in making arithmetical calculations, as a result of brain disorder.
number sense: can refer to “an intuitive understanding of numbers, their magnitude, relationships, and how they are affected by operations”.