Finding my way with Dyscalculia

More than two years ago I have first realized that I was born with dyscalculia, which manifests itself primarily through difficulty dealing with numbers. That part of it has not given me much trouble in my adult years, as I have developed many strategies to compensate for what my brain cannot reliably do, such as: arithmetic, recalling numbers of any length, converting non-metric units, etc. I have a smartphone and the internets to help me with that, wherever I am, and my quality of life does not suffer much from it.

Except when it's time to file taxes.

However, I have found a very friendly and understanding tax professional who does all the number-processing for me, and I am very grateful for his help.

A less-known, but much more vexing symptom of dyscalculia is lack of sense of direction. This is something for which I have yet to learn to fully compensate with other means.

I have chosen this still image from Inception movie because it closely reflects my experience of physical space: constantly morphing, unfamiliar, and confusing. It takes me weeks, and sometimes months, to learn a new route whenever I move or change jobs, and should I stop paying close attention to where I am going, I am still liable to get lost. As soon as I am off the memorized route, all bets are off. Should I find the familiar route again, but come at it from an unusual angle, I am just as likely to pick the wrong direction as the correct one.

Add to this "normal" people's ridicule, however mild, or complete lack of understanding ("Just learn to navigate!"), plus the ever-present possibility that a nav device failure may get me completely stranded with no direction home (happened), and you will begin to comprehend the level of anxiety that is coupled with what most of you take for granted: getting from A to B.

However, I lack no spatial awareness and can create working mental models of 3D objects in my mind. I do well on mental rotation tests and have a real knack for assembling Ikea furniture. As a child, I loved creating increasingly complex polyhedron nets. So 3D and spatial thinking are definitely not a problem here.

Given a map or a floor plan, I can quickly find my way, but don't ask me to retrace my steps to a restaurant or a landmark. Given that, I have come to the conclusion that the problem lies in some sort of a disconnect in my brain preventing translation of my physical experience into a working mental map.

So I went on a bit of a research spree, to see what strategies, exercises, and technologies exist to help people like me find their way. Aside from navigation devices and generic advice to "pay attention" the search was coming up empty at first, but after a few serendipitous clicks, I stumbled upon a mention of a haptic compass. That is a North-sensing device, such as a belt or an ankle bracelet, which has a number of little vibrating motors in it, and the one closest to North vibrates, so that you always know which way is North.

There is a theory that people from cultures that don't use egocentric coordinates are much better at navigating the world and are never lost. Whether or not it is true, it definitely would not hurt to know your geographic orientation at all times.

Initially it seemed like each of the haptic compasses, be it a belt or a hat, were DIY projects that would require me to deal with math (impossible!) to build. But with a little more research I found a device called the NorthPaw which you can buy as a kit or preassembled, and promptly bought it.

By adding a new input I may be able to bridge the disconnect in my brain and allow it to create a useful model of the space around me. Because I have a good ability to memorize and recall maps, I have high hopes for this gadget to help me figure out my position and which way my destination is.

I will post about my experience when the device arrives.

It would be nice not to be lost all the damn time for once.


  1. I'd love to know your success/failure with this. I've always been a pretty good innate navigator, although that skill has waned somewhat now that I use the GPS in more conditions.

    I've usually got a pretty good idea of where North is, which I do think helps a lot.

  2. I had no idea dyscalculia was associated with trouble navigating. Perhaps that explains my wife's family's troubles.

    I'm very interested to see if your experiment results in more directional awareness.

  3. I read an article once about a fellow's experience using a haptic compass and I thought it was fascinating. I am definitely interested in hearing what your experience is!

    BTW, I am revisiting your blog after a long absence due to your latest infrequent post on FB. So glad to hear about the excellent changes in your life since the last time I was here!

  4. I have used it once for a day, and then got busy with the move to the new house. It seemed to temporarily help, and then add confusion in the next moment. Too early to make a judgement really.

    @Carl: Thank you!