Problems with maths?
Troubles with handwriting – and motor skills? The explanation for your difficulties may be in the workings of the cells in your eyes.
Published October, 2010
MATHPROBLEMS: The new research may lead to a changed view of current pedagogical methods.
Inside the eye, the retina contains a number of
cells that respond to specific types of stimuli.
Some react to certain colours, while others
react to contrast or movement. These cells individually
gather information that combined
provides our overall visual experience.
One group of cells is called magno cells.
These are the cells that respond to rapid movements,
transmitting signals from the eye to the
brain. The information they send transforms
what we see into live video. Without these cells,
our brains would only perceive a series of still
photos with no direct relationship, much like
a comic book.
NTNU researchers suspect that the failure
of magno cells to work the way they should may
explain multiple learning disabilities and developmental
From motor skills to maths problems
Imagine that you are trying to catch a ball. If
you can’t quite perceive how the ball travels
in relation to your body, you will be a bit
awkward when you try to catch it. Or, as the
experts say: Your motor skills are less precise
than they should be.
But individuals who suffer from motor skill
difficulties often have other problems too: Between
three and eight per cent of school children
have great difficulty learning mathematics
(dyscalculia). About half of these individuals
also have reading difficulties (dyslexia), and
motor development problems.
It has long been known that several types of
learning disabilities often occur together. But
the cause for this has not been understood.
Sigmundsson studies the general principles
behind learning, as well as learning disabilities.
Sigmundsson is the driving force behind
a study that shows that children who have
extensive mathematical difficulties also have
significantly poorer visual perception associated
with rapid changes in the enviroment.
The study was carried out as follows: All of the
10-year-olds from two schools were given a
mathematics test. Those with both the highest
and lowest scores were given further tests.
These two groups went through two socalled
psycho-physical tests, where their visual
processing was tested. The first test concerned
the ability to follow dots on the screen which
moved in different patterns, both predictable
and unpredictable. This test revealed how well
students were able to follow and anticipate
predictable movements in relation to accidental
movements. In other words, the test quantified
the pupils’ ability to perceive rapid changes
in the environment.
The second test was a control test that examined
the ability to perceive form, using circles.
This test did not include movement.
The differences between the two groups were quite high in the test with the moving
dots. Those with the lowest maths skills also
scored lowest on this test. But there was no
difference between the test scores of the two
groups for the control test.
Small dysfunction – big effect
is the final confirmation of the mechanism
that Sigmundsson and his colleagues believe
lies behind the specific learning disabilities. It
all relates to how our visual system processes
information from the environment, through,
among others, magno cells. If something goes
a bit wrong here, the consequences are significant
and result in different types of learning
“This demonstrates that when we find evidence
of learning disabilities in children in one
area, we should expect to find learning difficulties
in other areas, too,” the professor says.
“And when we know the source of the problem,
it makes it easier to create and adapt
programmes so children get the most out of
New teaching techniques
notes that understanding the underlying causes
of learning disabilities can lead to a new approach
to pedagogical methods. Children with
dysfunctional magno cells probably need more
specific tools to help them understand visual
information than we previously thought.
“The educational challenge is finding teaching
techniques that make it easier for visual information
to get to the areas of the brain where
it will be processed further,” Sigmundsson
Contact: Hermundur Sigmundsson, Department of Psychology, NTNU
Phone: : +47 908 86 279
This article is also published at EarthSky