What happened to my brain? Is it too late for me to increase my intelligence?
July 13, 2011 4:33 PM   Subscribe

Is it really possible for me, at 42, to increase my IQ/fluid intelligence/learning ability?

Last night I took an online IQ test. I did shockingly badly, scoring a 106. (I think it was based on the Wechsler Adult Scale, but can't be sure). It was partly because I didn't manage to get to all the questions, but I got a surprising number wrong--and not just in one or two areas.

I know online tests probably aren't all that reliable, but I get the sense that if anything they would probably tend to be easier than "real" ones administered by psychologists. What's troubling to me is that I was tested at the age of eight and scored 140. I don't remember what test it was, except that it was given verbally by our district's school psychologist, and one of the tasks I was set was to list as many different random words as I could in the space of a minute.

Throughout school, I flourished in English and history classes and struggled in math. Since I was about three, my verbal fluency has been mostly off the charts--I could read at three and was reading longer, non-illustrated books at seven. On standardized tests my scores placed me in the top 99th percentile in reading and vocabulary; I did respectably in math, but not nearly so well. When I was tested for our district's gifted program the summer before fourth grade, I was supposedly reading at the college level.

Most of my life, however, I've been suffering from serious impostor syndrome. I've never considered myself truly smart because I stopped taking math altogether in tenth grade after Algebra II and science after eleventh grade chemistry in order to hack my GPA. I majored in English in college and managed never to take a "real" science course that involved any sort of mathematical reasoning, and then I went on to grad school in English literature and am now ABD.

I now work as a technical writer, but I still sorely feel the math/science deficiency. I believed (and so did my husband, who is a scientist) that my poor performance in math and science was the result of having been convinced by my parents and teachers that I had little aptitude for those subjects. So a couple years ago I started taking courses in computer programming and math at a local community college. The programming is kind of like learning a human language. It's a struggle, but it's a walk in the park compared to the math. I managed to come out of my precalculus course (the first in 25 years) with a C (after failing the final, no less). I ended up just dropping calculus. I hated it, mainly because it was so damn hard and I just wasn't getting it.

I am, of course, generally among the oldest students in the class. I'm not sure why I'm doing so poorly. When I do the problem sets, I check my answers to the odd questions against the answer key in the back of the textbook, but generally get the even questions (whose answers are not given) wrong, and then I do horribly on the exams, despite the fact that I am probably being more diligent about homework and practice than other, younger students. (It takes me much longer to finish.) I will go into an exam believing that I'm on top of the material, and come away feeling as though the rug has been pulled out from underneath me. And yet, somehow I believe that if I could just figure out what was wrong, I could start to master it and start enjoying it as a result.

So I'm just trying to figure out what my problem is. Is it that I'm getting older and my fluid intelligence is decreasing? I know about how mathematicians and theoretical physicists usually do their best work before age 30, but I don't know whether the capacities of above-average but nonbrilliant folks decrease over time as well. If so, is there anything I can do about it? I would really, really like to learn calculus, and I'd like to be able to take courses in the hard sciences that rely on higher mathematics to improve my job skills, bridge the gap with my scientist and developer coworkers, and just feel less all around like I am faking being smart. Taking that test last night was really disheartening. Is there a chance for me, or is it too late, and am I relegated to a life of just fixing the grammar and usage of genuinely bright people? And if it's not too late--especially if you've been in a similar situation--what advice can you give me?
posted by anonymous to Education (30 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
The problem is that you are ascribing way too much significance to the score you received on an online test, and you seem to have way too much your self-worth wrapped up in what scores you get on tests and classes. You are 42 - that's halfway to dead. (I'm older, I can make that joke). Stop wasting time on crap that makes you miserable.

Life long learning is good for you, it's fun, and it may stave off Alzheimers. But it doesn't really matter what you are learning. Learning to play chess, or the guitar, is just as good for your brain as calculus. So stop worrying about test scores and school and go learn stuff that is fun for you.

Calculus? I have an engineering degree and you couldn't pay me to take calculus again.
posted by COD at 4:45 PM on July 13, 2011 [16 favorites]

What's troubling to me is that I was tested at the age of eight and scored 140.

Don't let that trouble you: your 140 IQ at age 8 doesn't mean much – just that you did significantly better than other 8-year-olds who also took the test (remember the quotient part of the test name) and you reached certain milestones faster than other kids, who more likely than not caught up eventually as they were growing up. (Similarly with reading at a college level at a younger age, by the time you get to college you're just on par with everyone else.)

...[Calculus] was so damn hard and I just wasn't getting it.

Do you have time to take advantage of tutoring services? One of the best calculus instructors I've ever had was a man who, at his own admission, never got math and, in his 30s, went through hell to understand it so that he could teach it as the state, at the time, did not have many positions available for non-science teachers. I've yet to meet someone who is so skillful at explaining concepts to people who can't seem to understand things that science-minded people would consider perfectly obvious (and hence difficult to explain).
posted by halogen at 4:48 PM on July 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Argh, apologies about the terribly convoluted wording. Caffeine!
posted by halogen at 4:50 PM on July 13, 2011

I had two IQ tests as a child, one in kindergarten and one in grade two. The kindergarten one was fun, and right up my alley: I still remember doing it, and having a ball. It was verbal and visual, and tested logic and vocabulary. I got some ear-wax meltingly high score.

The next one was math based. Guess what I suck at? Add to this the fact(s) that we were taught math at the board and reading on the desk, that my last name meant that I sat in the last row, and that I badly needed glasses, which I didn't have. Part of my math anxiety stems from the fact that I literally couldn't *see* either the problems or the work.

So: IQ test one, I was a GENIUSGENIUS. IQ test two, I scored well below normal. Everyone got very upset, except for me (and my Mom).

The takeaway is that IQ tests are much too variable to be concerned about.
posted by jrochest at 4:56 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Or what halogen said. ;)
posted by jrochest at 4:57 PM on July 13, 2011

I took the first semester of calculus (for engineers) in college and came close to failing my first exam. Not long afterwards a different professor substituted for my prof, who was on vacation, and it was the first time I'd felt like I'd understood anything in the class. I started attending his lectures along with the TA sections and exams for the section I was in and my grades improved dramatically.

The moral of this story is: you may need a different teacher whose approach better suits your learning style.
posted by immlass at 5:02 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like the idea of getting a tutor that will help you see these things in different ways. I also get your desire to improve your job skills. But you do realize that even if you never do calculus that doesn't mean that you're "faking smart", right? Why would calculus be a better determiner of that than language skills?

Go ahead and challenge yourself and learn new stuff. But it seems to me that your impostor syndrome is based on a fallacy that certain intelligences are more important than others.
posted by ldthomps at 5:03 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Anecdotally I'd say that it's possible, actually pretty close to a sure thing - given the right conditions. But it's the conditions that you probably can't ramp up. My experience, and that of a lot of people I've talked to, is that this stuff (intelligence, learning, etc) does seem to act a bit like muscle - in that when you're living and breathing it, you get very good at doing it easily and quickly and well. And when you slack off, or move to other things, your ability fades. (Surprisingly rapidly sometimes :-/ )

When you're in college full time, and have been for years, you (or at least I) operate at a much higher level than even just a year later, if that year is an average job and average tasks that don't push your learning ability as hard and as constantly.

My recent work involves constant learning of a certain sort, and constant concentration, and in those areas, I ramp up again and become very sharp. In areas I haven't been pushed on for a while, they're very wooly and mired compared to what I was like when I was thinking and struggling with it every day. Maybe learning does reduce with age, but my suspicion is age effects will be dwarfed by these factors.

Where you are in life, you probably don't have the time or environment to crunch your brain as constantly as in the past when learning was all you did all day, but if you did, you'd start performing at higher levels again. I think this may be part of why the course was such a struggle - you're not immersed in that thinking, and the course is really aimed at people who not only are, but who have never yet not been immersed in it, their entire lives.

As regards IQ tests, find ten different ones, do them all, and watch your scores rise as you not only learn how to do IQ tests, but regain familiarity with those styles of thinking.

Basically, don't worry about it. Mental giants, like bodybuilders, are working out constantly. You're a body builder who hasn't been working out. It doesn't mean that your current nice-but-not-as-amazing-as-it-was build is permanent.
posted by anonymisc at 5:27 PM on July 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Our human bodies reach our peak in our 20s. No coincidence that most sports professionals peak then - our cardio, strength and reflexes are at our pinnacle. It's just a fact that for the most part they're no longer competitive past 30 - they're still good, but would lose to a younger player.

It's the same mentally - in e-sports - computer gaming - you'd think that your mind would be less affected by the ravages of time. But it's not - there are very few top professional players past 27. Quickness of thought... the ability to orientate yourself in the face of new information, process it, come up with a response... mental endurance... they all decline.

On the plus side, as you age, you gain in experience. Wisdom. Those qualities count, and obviously count for a lot more than sheer mental ability in many professions.

So can you turn back the clock and get a younger, faster, more agile, brain? Probably not. Is there value in the courses you're doing? Most likely - the brain is like any other muscle in your body, the more you use it, the easier and faster new things will come to you.
posted by xdvesper at 5:40 PM on July 13, 2011

There are many shades of intelligence. Just because you lack math skills does not necessarily mean you are not intelligent.

Sometimes the lowly janitor that never graduated high school is, in fact, the wisest man in the room.
posted by Flood at 5:50 PM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

You certainly can increase your fluid intelligence at any age. Practice sustained thinking about the most difficult problems you can comprehend without seeking help. You should find a partner who will do this with you and test you, so you have no chance to convince yourself you are trying your best when you aren't, because this is what the brain does.

I agree you are worrying too much about an IQ test but agreeing with you does not answer the question. You can increase your fluid intelligence and you should because it will help you accomplish what you want to do.
posted by michaelh at 6:00 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

n-back memorization via a simple computer game seems to me to be very promising for improving your working memory (some writeups: WSJ, Wikipedia).
posted by matlock expressway at 6:03 PM on July 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Seconding COD on not putting too much stake in this thing. For kicks, I just took the test you linked to; I missed only one question (the TQNKH one if it matters). On the how-you-did breakdown, it said that my problem areas are short term memory and verbal skills, even though I only missed one question, one which I consider more of a pattern recognition/math question. So I think it's got some problems.

Doing anything that requires active brain participation is going to "increase" your intelligence. I remember reading something a while back about a bunch of nuns who do crossword puzzles all day and don't show any signs of dementia (which is unusual for their age group). If you want some FUN questions to get your brain jazzercising, ditch this lousy IQ test and go poke around on Sporcle.
posted by phunniemee at 6:12 PM on July 13, 2011

I don’t know if this will be helpful or not to you, OP, but this is just another perspective. Several years ago I taught science courses at the uni/college level to undergraduates , but sometimes the intro courses were divided into science courses for nonmajors, majors, and even honors nonmajors.

Over the course of the semester, I got to know some of the students very well. Anywho, one of the characteristics of at least a subset was very high anxiety about science and/or math, and this included the honors students who generally succeeded academically. Also, I was impressed/surprised to observe that it was actually a subset of the nonmajors who really, really needed to know “why” something was relevant or important. It was a pleasure to work with this pool of students because they challenged you.

I wonder if you may fall into this group (anxiety and needing someone to explain why)? If this speaks to you, then you may want to consider starting with a class for nonmajors because someone will at least attempt to draw the connecting dots. Alternatively, what about just sitting down with colleagues who love the material, and having them talk you through what is relevant and why. Or find a grad student and take him or her to lunch and ask them to explain why they love the field and to point you to some of the best things about the particular field.

Also, in regards to the thoughts on aging, the research on this area is poor. But, something that has been found in the last 20 years or so --we still have new brain cells born (neurogenesis) into our hippocampuses and plasticity exhibited in other parts of the brain, even at much older ages. Seriously, neurogenesis continues even in 70-year old brains. [PDF link to this interesting research]
posted by Wolfster at 6:17 PM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

OK, so I bit the bullet and took this test. This test is definitely scoring lower/more realistic than most online tests. So I wouldn't be too freaked by a 106 on this specific test.

Also, I wasn't surprised to see that a lot of the questions were kind of crap. They're very, very susceptible to "if you've seen it before..." Since I do a lot of scientific studies/guinea pig stuff, I've seen most of the modern questions, usually several times. If you really want to raise your score, I guess that's one way (also they put you in the MRI and then pay you afterwards). But it won't help you in the rest of your life. (Also they don't even pay more if you score well.)

For your actual life, you need a math tutor. Your university may have free tutoring, or you could hire someone. You absolutely lose math if you haven't done it in a while. I lose math that I haven't done in a while, and I teach math! You need someone to walk you through all the logic that you've forgotten or didn't learn soundly in the first place and to explain the reasoning behind why you do this step next so that you can actually apply it to other problems. Even a small lecture is going to have 30 students, and it is just not possible to do that for 30 students at once. Sooo, so many students blossom when they get one on one help.

I answered all of the questions and missed one out of the 30. My IQ/"score" was 138.
posted by anaelith at 7:12 PM on July 13, 2011

You might have dyscalculia. Your back history sounds a lot like mine: brilliant at English-ish stuff and bad at math. Here's a list of symptoms. Note that one of the symptoms is:

It is common for students with dyscalculia to have normal or accelerated language acquisition: verbal, reading, writing, and good visual memory for the printed word. They are typically good in the areas of science (until a level requiring higher mathematics skills is reached), geometry (figures with logic not formulas), and creative arts.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:19 PM on July 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

You might be interest in the book The Brain That Changes Itself, which is a popsci look at neuroplasticity and among other things discusses at length the effect ageing has on the brain and some ways of dealing with it.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:00 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

A theory - your verbal intelligence is much higher than your other types (I can't remember what they are). So when given a test verbally, you did much better than on a written one.

You probably need someone to work through this stuff with you out loud. It may also be worth reading the questions out loud, and then talking through what you have to do. This won't help with exams, but it may help you understand it.

One more thing - hanging around scientists when you don't think like them is going to make you feel less smart. However, your written and verbal abilities probably far exceed theirs, so try to focus on that a bit more.
posted by kjs4 at 8:05 PM on July 13, 2011

Did you expect to do badly on the IQ test? Had you already started to think of yourself as less intelligent because of your difficulty with math in high school and college? That can really have an impact on performance. And especially since you're female, "stereotype vulnerability" is something to be aware of as well.

I think your brain is totally fine. My guess is that you mostly just need some practical help with math. There are good suggestions here, like tutoring, which can make a huge difference; I'll add this post of Cal Newport's, too (he has a lot of good study advice that I wish I'd found earlier).

A couple other thoughts: don't check your answers in the answer key right away, and don't spend too much time on math at any one sitting. Instead, let the problems marinate for a while, over a couple of days if possible. Also, it sounds like you maybe have some test anxiety -- do you ever practice under test conditions? A lot of colleges have tests from previous years, or you can make one up from book problems. Sorry if these suggestions sound obvious -- they weren't to me when I was a student.

Finally, just going to throw this out there: a good friend of mine really had a horrible time in precalc in high school, but then took proof-based math later on and thrived. My point is, everyone's experience is different and getting a few Cs doesn't make you "bad at math," always and forever. And while you definitely don't need to be "good at math" to feel like you're not an impostor -- I'm familiar with the feelings you describe and it may be worth digging into this a little with a therapist -- I think this is a cool, admirable personal project and I think you can absolutely make it work. Good luck.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:08 PM on July 13, 2011

Oh, and math is a language. So if you can learn languages, you can learn math. If you do get a tutor, tell them that you need to read everything that you write down out loud and have them correct you if you make errors. Here's a quick example:


Many students will say "log two four". This is wrong. Instead, read it as "the logarithm (base two) of four". Then when you remember that in exponential equations

ab = c

a is the "base", you will know that 2 goes where a is. Then you just need to remember that logarithms and exponents are different, so the 4 must go on the other side of the equals sign, so:

2b = 4


log24 = b = 2

Almost all of the terms used in math have little stories or logical roots behind them, so use it!

(On preview, ninjad by kjs.)
posted by anaelith at 8:13 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was also going to mention dsycalculia. I'm in my forties and didn't realize this was a learning disorder until I came back to college a few years ago. Your history could read like mine. I don't not do math because I'm terrified of it, I genuinely try to do it, and sometimes for just a minute, it all clicks - then it's gone. It took me two years to get through college algebra and I fled calculus in tears after the first hour of class (at age 30).

Something you might get tested for. If you've ever known someone with dyslexia, then you can understand the frustration of dsycalculia.
posted by patheral at 8:16 PM on July 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

IQ tests are complete garbage. They have been scientifically destroyed time after time, but people keep coming back to them. We like to have a number that we can hold in our hands and say "This is how smart I am." More to the point, "This is how much smarter I am than others."

So that's the first thing. Release your grip on the IQ test. IQ scores are, and have always been, completely meaningless.

Second thing is: use it or lose it. And the more you use it, the better you get at it. The more different things you make your mind do, the better and more flexible it will become - and remain. Study after study has shown this. Take up drawing, painting, knitting, carpentry, crossword puzzles. Variety is key.

Third: people have different aptitudes. That's okay. It doesn't mean you're bad or stupid because you didn't do very well at computer programming. Some people have an aptitude for learning languages; others do not. Some people have an aptitude for sketching; others do not.

Accept that you can't be the best at everything. But try your hardest anyway, because it's good for the soul.

If I told you that I was brilliant at everything but math, would you think me an imbecile? I should hope not. And yet that is apparently what you have been telling yourself all these years.

I think it's high time you forgive yourself for only being so-so at math.
posted by ErikaB at 9:13 PM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

IIRC, IQ tests are supposed to be given at (or around) age 16...something to do with maximum number of brain cells+very little in the way of inhibitions...
posted by sexyrobot at 12:03 AM on July 14, 2011

1. it was an online test
2. you didn't do all the questions

Therefore, you don't have a valid test here.

Also. It is a truism that IQ tests are not any kind of definitive or final measure of that ineffable thing called intelligence. They're more sort of a formalized guess. I knew somebody who had an IQ of only 86, and while she did not have an absolutely brilliant mind, she was an intellectual (you can be an intellectual without being a genius), was an excellent writer of both fiction and non-fiction (one of her opinion pieces went a long way to changing attitudes about an important issue at her school), passed all her exams in many subjects which is more than 50% of the population can manage, and earned a place to study occupational therapy at university. This is not the kind of thing that would normally be expected from someone with a low IQ.

As for the crisis of confidence you are facing: I have an IQ of absolute LOADS and I did the bare minimum of math till I could drop it at 15. I went on to discover that I'm very good at mathematical logic, but I still don't do any kind of arithmetic or pluttification whatsoever.

I would also point out to you that first you failed, and then you got a C. That means you are improving. That is a big improvement in a skill you haven't used all your life and which you find very, very hard. I would suggest that you a) get checked out for dyscalculia, if only to satisfy your curiosity, and b) consider whether you would rather keep repeating the course until you can ratchet your grade up to a B, or just drop it.
posted by tel3path at 4:37 AM on July 14, 2011

I believed (and so did my husband, who is a scientist) that my poor performance in math and science was the result of having been convinced by my parents and teachers that I had little aptitude for those subjects.

Y'know, some people just aren't good at math. I had the opposite problem growing up; raised in one of the feminist capitals of the world in the 70s/80s, I was told that women should love math and be brilliant at it and when I couldn't do the problems I was yelled at for not trying hard enough. You can definitely learn new things at 42 (that's my age too--I'm taking viola lessons), but only if you have an aptitude for them in the first place.
posted by Melismata at 7:49 AM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I say this in all friendliness -- it seems to me like after you took that IQ test, you were so shook up that you were up all night Googling on this -- "fluid intelligence," the age at which theoretical physicists do their best work, "Wechsler Adult Scale," etc.

Before you took this test, could you have told me the definition of those things? (I sure couldn't, myself). Could you have explained exactly what it is that that IQ test measures? Maybe you would have said that it measures how intelligent you are compared to other people. But what is intelligence? What does that mean? What exactly are we measuring, when we measure that? As far as I am aware, nobody has been able to nail that down.

If you can't even unequivocally define the thing you are trying to measure, if you can't even measure it directly but instead measure other things and stitch those together, the result you'd get seems pretty meaningless to me. How do you know you've measured what you're trying to measure or that it even exists in the way that you think it does? You don't, IMO.

So it seems a big waste of time to worry about it. Why not worry about getting better at concrete things that can be part of being a smart person, instead of nebulous things that can't even be defined? Like, when you see the developers at your job doing their work, what's more important in reality: who creates the highest quality work, who has the best skills, who is the most knowledgeable ... or who has the highest "n factor" or whatever it is that's the current hotness in the realm of IQ testing? In your workplace, the developer who is the best at what he/she does, or who other people might say is the smartest, is by no means necessarily the developer who would get the highest score on an IQ test.

So why not worry about the things you could have defined, before you started Googling, as qualities of intelligent people? ALL of these things are things that you can practice and improve on. Like improving your memory, improving your reading comprehension --- as you've mentioned, improving your mathematical problem-solving ability.

In college I had a part time job delivering packages and worked with a lot of blue-collar guys, who were all Americans. Every year, the company required the white-collar workers to spend a week doing our job; one of these white-collar guys was an older Indian immigrant. We were working one day, and one of the guys I normally worked with, an American, was bemoaning his young daughter's bad grades. He said, "She's just terrible at math, like I was." The Indian guy, who was working with us that day, said, "Then, you need to MAKE her good at math." Meaning, you need to get her tutors, make her practice, get her all the help she needs, and then she will become good at it. But the other guy just kinda shook his head and said, "Yeah..." It was clear that he was skeptical, and didn't really think it would make much difference, and probably wouldn't take the advice. That to him, his daughter WAS just bad at math, as an innate quality. It was one of those moments where you really see so clearly why people from certain cultures come to the US and just blow away so many American students.

Nobody is born knowing math. And, while I'm sure there are a handful of them out there, I have never met anyone who can just kind of absorb it. And I've known a LOT of very smart people, engineers from Stanford and Ivy League schools. Math is one of those things that everybody has to practice, A LOT.

Sure, maybe you have dyscalculia, and maybe it would be worthwhile to be tested for it. But if you don't have that, then I have an inkling that this might be part of your problem:

I ended up just dropping calculus. I hated it, mainly because it was so damn hard and I just wasn't getting it.

When you start out in school as a kid who's ahead of your peers in a lot of areas, who can just coast by when your peers have to work, two things can happen.

One, you don't learn how to work to understand something. So when you reach the grade level where there are subjects that EVERYONE has to work to understand (like you mentioned, Algebra II and chemistry) you can have the rug pulled out from under you. Meanwhile, everyone who's been working to understand things all those years is already used to doing so. It's a skill, and they have it. You don't, so you can become frustrated that you're not just getting it like always, flail, flounder, and eventually quit. But you can learn that skill too. You just need to learn how to ignore the frustration and not give up, no matter how long it takes.

Two, you may have been used to seeing the need to work to understand something as a sign of stupidity. So be resistant to doing so yourself and want to just give up when you run into it.

Here is an article I've linked several times before on AskMeFi, about the effects of praising children for intelligence rather than effort, as it sounds your parents may have done. The gist is that the kids praised for intelligence became resistant to doing things they weren't already good at, were more afraid of failure in general. I think it might be a very worthwhile read for you, to see if anything there resonates for you.

Finally, aside from the whole question about increasing your intelligence... I think therapy might be a really good idea for you. It sounds like so much of your self esteem is wrapped around being a smart person, and/or being considered by others to be smart. And when you run into something that challenges that, like the test you took, it can be extremely distressing for you, and really shake you up. And of course what you mentioned about going through life feeling like a fraud. You don't have to live like that, going through life feeling so insecure and guarding this thing that you need in order to preserve your self esteem. Therapy could really help change that.
posted by Ashley801 at 2:50 PM on July 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Oh, one more thing about the physicists. Obviously cognitive function does eventually decline, but there are too many entangled factors -- like how entrenched you are in seeing things a certain way (newcomers to a field sometimes make more lateral connections) and how much time you have to devote to science (older faculty spend less and less time "doing science" and more time serving on committees, managing departments, raising families, etc.) -- to say that this early peak of brilliance is all or even mostly biology. Younger brains do probably have some advantages but it's really not clear how this translates into making scientific discoveries (a lot of which, don't forget, is getting lucky!).
posted by en forme de poire at 4:31 PM on July 14, 2011

Throughout school, I flourished in English and history classes and struggled in math.

... I stopped taking math altogether in tenth grade after Algebra II ...

... my precalculus course (the first in 25 years) ...

Is it possible you don't have the fundamentals?

If you've never felt good at math, it seems likely to me you never developed strong skills in the early, foundational aspects of the subject.

A homeschooler I admire talked about working with his daughter through her math books. She did great - right up until they got to long division. Then she got stuck. Because they were homeschooling, they were able to back up to the point where she was having trouble and keep working and working at it until she got it. Then she was able to move on to the next thing, with confidence and skill.

The classroom experience is often different - if you can do well enough to pass the test (heck, even if you can't), you move on to the next thing with the rest of the students, and you may never get another chance to really learn the thing that's tripping you up.

So here's my suggestion: go find the easiest math you can. Start with addition and subtraction. You know THAT stuff, right? Maybe check a few kids' math books out of the library - they often have interesting, subtle, elegant math ideas slipped in there that you might not have been given in grade school.

When you get bored with the seriously easy stuff, move on to something a little harder. Pre-algebra, maybe? Do a bunch of problems and see how they feel. Is it easy? Are you confident? If so - great. You can move on to a review of algebra. If NOT - DON'T PANIC. It's GOOD news - you've found a place where you can improve your skills.

Keep moving from easy to slightly harder until you're feeling really good and skilled in each set of skills you're practicing. And keep pointing out to yourself that there's SOME math you know really well.

I've heard homeschoolers rave about the Saxon math courses. They're pricy - even used - but you might be able to find some through your library. (I was able to take a look at the advanced books via interlibrary loan.) Also, please take a trip to your library and look at all the math books you can find - including books in the children's section. There are ALL KINDS of math books, from Algebra for Dummies to Algebra Demystified to (probably some variant on) Algebra Made Fun! See if you can find something that clicks for you.

I have two specific recommendations of books sitting on my bookshelf right now:

The Nature of Mathematics - from the Preface (I have the 6th edition): "... most students ... have postponed taking this course as long as possible, are dreading the experience, and are coming with a great deal of anxiety. To you I say, relax and enjoy. I wrote this book with one overriding goal: to create a positive attitude toward mathematics. ... I want you to come away ... with the feeling that mathematics can be pleasant, useful, and practical - and enjoyed for its own sake."

I did the first few pages in this book and I was excited about Pascal's triangle for days.

Calculus Made Easy - free from Project Gutenberg. (You can also buy a copy with an introduction by Martin Gardner.) From the prologue: "Being myself a remarkably stupid fellow, I have had to unteach myself the difficulties, and now beg to present to my fellow fools the parts that are not hard. Master these thoroughly, and the rest will follow. What one fool can do, another can."

(Chapter 1 is entitled, "To Deliver You from the Preliminary Terrors". Heh.)

An anecdote:

I've dabbled in music all my life. I've always felt good at it - I enjoy it, I love learning new things about it - but I'm strictly amateur.

Until last week, I couldn't even tell a half-tone interval from a whole-tone interval. I mean, I could tell if something was off, but if you asked me to sing a two notes a half tone apart, I wouldn't have been able to do it.

Last week, I happened to launch my ear training software. I went through the half-tone/whole-tone exercise. I got the first one wrong. I got the second one wrong. I got frustrated. I searched the web for "music interval mnemonics" for about the hundredth time. But THIS time, I learned just the 4 mnemonics I needed for this specific task. I went back to the software exercise. I got all 16 right, all in a row.

The point of this story is not only to say "sure, it's entirely possible to learn new things, even when you're older" - it's also to say that, while I can muddle through any number of musical endeavors, I've never been able to do anything that depended on being able to identify intervals well - but soon, I'll be able to. Lots of skills have prerequisite skills. If you've missed out on some fundamentals, you just need to figure out what those are, and acquire THOSE skills. Otherwise, you're attempting the nearly-impossible and beating yourself up for not finding it easy.

Back up until you get to where it was easy; then, when you find the hard stuff, work on it until you OWN it - and THEN you can move on to the next thing.

You can do this.
posted by kristi at 11:04 AM on July 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

To piggyback on Kristi, I've heard great things about Stroud's Engineering Mathematics for precisely this way of practicing -- starting from the beginning, with loads of practice problems to master before moving on. There's also Foundation Mathematics from the same guy, which looks like similar material but even more gradual.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:35 AM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Physical exercise has been shown to improve working memory in adults. Expressive writing too. In my experience a day that includes an early jogging session and a bit of journaling is way better than a day without them. I'd be willing to bet that other lazy slobs like myself who decided to take up these activities will attest to the kinds of results I've had.
posted by jwhite1979 at 5:39 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

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