ADHD / ADHD and Kids / Coping Strategies

Learning Challenges: The Wisdom Of Finger Counting

I’m 37-years-old and I count on my fingers. I cannot do mental math. I could not do mental math as a child. If you need me to add up numbers for you, and there are more than one digit per number and the total of them is higher than 8, I will either use my fingers, or I you’d better hand me a piece of paper and a pen. (Or I will pull them out of my purse because I always carry notebooks and about 30 pens with me…in case I lose one or twenty in the course of a day, duh.)

As quickly as I can grab a number and hold it in my head, it disappears. Just as I’m trying to connect two numbers in a mathematical relationship, the first one is gone, and if I go back to grab it, by the time I’m back, the second one is gone. I feel my entire thought process stop, and I can’t leap far enough to bridge the gap, as the train pulls away from the platform and the entire rest of the class is on it. I have difficulty with other types of visualization exercises too, which is part of why some types of meditation annoy me rather than relaxing me, but number-distillation is the worst.

Even on paper, I have to meticulously write out every step because I cannot intuit the missing steps. I was never diagnosed with a mathematical learning disability, I just got horrible grades in math and nobody really seemed worried about it because I did so well in other, more verbally-based subjects. As far as I’m concerned, my fingers are my best mathematical tool, unless a calculator is handy (and even then I have to triple check everything to make sure I put the numbers in correctly, because frequently, I don’t).

I turn the radio on when I go to bed, if Sonny isn’t home, because I need the stimulation of the sound, in order to relax. A few nights ago, I’m laying there in bed, listening to a broadcast about how people solve problems, and one of the guests on the show makes a comment (clearly intended as a joke) to the effect of “who over the age of 8 uses their fingers to solve math problems, I mean clearly that’s ridiculous”. It was clearly intended to be a “funny” comment and I try not to get overly offended by things but I really wanted to stick my head into the radio and say “hey, you, asshole, I do, and so do lots of people who struggle painfully with learning disabilities”. Doesn’t matter who the asshole was…I know it wasn’t intended as a mean statement, but it just rubbed me the wrong way.

SO. Where exactly am I going with this. Glad you asked.

I Googled finger-counting.

Here’s an interesting piece from this past June, from the Guardian, about how finger counting is observed in many cultures, that there are many different ways its done in different cultures, and that it gives valuable clues to cognition and the impact of culture on cognition. Some highlights:

“fMRI scans show that brain regions associated with finger sense are activated when we perform numerical tasks, even if we don’t use our fingers to help us complete those tasks. And studies show that young children with good finger awareness are better at performing quantitative tasks than those with less finger sense.”

“Take the Eurasian systems. They’re quite literal: one finger equals one count, and the brain immediately perceives this concept. But Chinese finger counting uses symbolic gestures to represent any number higher than five, and people from Papua New Guinea utilise much of the upper body to represent number. Such symbolic gestures need to be learned, and then retrieved as needed from our working memory. That requires more cognitive effort, but symbolic systems do allow for more sophisticated arithmetic.”

“Does the neurological feedback from these different types of body-based counting influence how we think about numbers? This is fascinating, but those of us who are not naturally good at maths might reasonably ask a more simple question.

Could it be that some people are always going to be better at maths than others, just because of where they grew up?”

And my favorite:

“…by practising different techniques of finger counting we could all improve our mental arithmetic. That hasn’t been empirically tested yet, but it might be worth a try.”

Perhaps try some finger binary for fun.

Or busy yourself in an afternoon with these “handy” math tricks from Math Fail. (Now that’s a website name I can identify with.)