In the mid-1980s, Paul Moorcraft, then a war correspondent, journeyed with a film crew into Afghanistan to produce a documentary about the fifth anniversary of the Soviet invasion. The trip took them behind Soviet lines. “We were attacked every fucking day by the Russians,” says the colorful Welshman. But the real trouble started later, when Moorcraft tried to tally his expenses, such as horses and local garb for his crew. Even with a calculator, the simple sums took him ten times longer than they should have. “It was an absolute nightmare. I spent days and days and days.” When he finally sent the bill to an accountant, he had not realized that after adding a zero he was claiming millions of pounds for a trip that had cost a couple of hundred thousand. “He knew I was an honest guy and assumed that it was just a typo.”
Such mistakes were part of a lifelong pattern for Moorcraft, now director of the Center for Foreign Policy Analysis in London and the author of more than a dozen books. He hasn't changed his phone number or PIN in years for fear that he would never remember new ones, and when working for Britain's Ministry of Defense he put subordinates in charge of remembering safe codes. In 2003, a mistaken phone number — one of hundreds before it — lost him a girlfriend who was convinced he was out gallivanting. That finally convinced him to seek an explanation.
At the suggestion of a friend who teaches children with learning disabilities, Moorcraft contacted Brian Butterworth, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London who studies numerical cognition. After conducting some tests, Butterworth concluded that Moorcraft was “a disaster at arithmetic” and diagnosed him with dyscalculia, a little-known learning disability sometimes called number blindness and likened to dyslexia for maths. Researchers estimate that as much as 7% of the population has dyscalculia, which is marked by severe difficulties in dealing with numbers despite otherwise normal (or, in Moorcraft's case, probably well above normal) intelligence.
That combination has attracted neuroscientists such as Butterworth, who believe that the disorder illuminates the inner workings of the brain's number sense — the ability to understand and manipulate quantities. This sense is every bit as innate as vision or hearing, yet scientists disagree over its cognitive and neural basis, a debate that dyscalculics may help to settle.
For Butterworth, scientific curiosity eventually gave way to advocacy. “I thought, it's not enough to just try to identify the cause,” he says. In the past decade, he has crusaded to get dyscalculia recognized — by parents, teachers, politicians and anyone who will listen. And he is using his scientific insights into the condition to help dyscalculic children. “What's the point of telling someone they have dyscalculia if you can't help them?” he says.
Finding the number
Christopher, a chatty nine-year-old in a rumpled blue sweatshirt and white polo shirt, sits beside Patricia Babtie, a teacher who specializes in dyscalculia and tutors children across Greater London. On a sturdy-looking laptop, Christopher (not his real name) is navigating Number Sense, a suite of educational computer games designed by Butterworth and his colleague Diana Laurillard at the Institute of Education in London.