Ullman and Evans state that learning mathematics probably depends on the brain's two main learning and memory systems: not just procedural memory, but also declarative memory, where conscious knowledge is learned. We think that learning math is likely similar to learning other skills, Evans says. In a typical classroom, there are children who are exceptionally good at math, while others struggle. However, some children seem to be particularly bad at math, and they have difficulty even adding or subtracting routinely, even after they've studied hard.

A pair of researchers from Georgetown University Medical Center and Stanford University conducted a comprehensive review of the current literature and found evidence of a form of “mathematical disability,” related to dyslexia. Their theory suggests that mathematical disability is related to abnormalities in areas of the brain that support procedural memory. Procedural memory, also called implicit memory, is a type of long-term memory that is involved in the execution of different actions and abilities. Essentially, it's the memory of how to do certain things.

Riding a bike, tying your shoes, and cooking an omelet without a prescription are examples of procedural memories. Providing mathematics tasks with high cognitive demand generates high expectations for all students, as it challenges them to engage in higher-order thinking. When teachers connect mathematics to the world of students, students see how mathematics is relevant and applicable to their daily lives. The two researchers identified the basal ganglia and areas of the frontal and spatial lobes as responsible for the inability of some people to process mathematical problems.

Neural predictors of individual differences in response to math tutoring in elementary school children. Providing physical and virtual representations of numbers and mathematical concepts helps to activate mental processes. Maybe you had the bad luck of dealing with a teacher whose technique relied too much on memorizing by heart without considering the meaning, maybe you didn't know the right curriculum materials, or maybe you're just not as bad at math as you think. In fact, aspects of mathematics that tend to be automated, such as arithmetic, are problematic for children with mathematical disabilities.

However, that doesn't mean you have an underlying brain abnormality if you did poorly in math at school. When students have mathematical skills, basic knowledge, and arithmetic calculations in their long-term memory, they have the tools they need to tackle new mathematical problems. Previously, other groups had suggested that problems solving seemingly simple calculations could arise due to deficiencies in short-term spatial memory, making it difficult to take numbers into account. Writing texts that encourage students to articulate their understanding of mathematical concepts or to explain mathematical ideas helps them deepen their mathematical understanding.

Mathematics, reading or learning a new language depend on these two learning systems and, so far, evidence seems to indicate that when procedural memory is impaired, a child may have a mathematical disability, dyslexia, or a language development disorder. When students create their own numerical and verbal problems, they relate mathematical concepts to their basic knowledge and lived experiences.