Watch out for math: It can really hurt

U. CHICAGO (US) — Just thinking about having to do a math problem can prompt a reaction in the brain similar to what happens when someone feels physical pain.

Using brain scans, scholars determined that the brain areas active when highly math-anxious people prepare to do math overlap with the same brain areas that register the threat of bodily harm—and in some cases, physical pain.

“For someone who has math anxiety, the anticipation of doing math prompts a similar brain reaction as when they experience pain—say, burning one’s hand on a hot stove,” says Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.


Surprisingly, the researchers found it was the anticipation of having to do math, and not actually doing math itself, that looked like pain in the brain. “The brain activation does not happen during math performance, suggesting that it is not the math itself that hurts; rather the anticipation of math is painful,” says Ian Lyons, a PhD graduate in psychology from University of Chicago and currently a postdoctoral scholar at Western University in Ontario, Canada.

For the study, published in the current issue of PLoS One, Bellock and Lyons worked with 14 adults who were shown to have math anxiety based on their responses to a series of questions about math. The questions gauged one’s anxiety when receiving a math textbook, walking to math class, or realizing math requirements for graduation. Additional tests showed that these individuals were not overly anxious in general; instead, their heightened sense of anxiety was specific to math-related situations.

The study volunteers were tested in an fMRI machine, which allowed researchers to examine brain activity as they did math. Volunteers were given mathematics equations to verify—for example, the validity of the following equation: (12 x 4) – 19 = 29. While in the fMRI scanner, subjects were also shown short word puzzles. For these puzzles, people saw a series of letters (for example: yrestym) and had to determine if reversing the order of the letters produced a correctly spelled English word.

The fMRI scans showed that the anticipation of math caused a response in the brain similar to physical pain. The higher a person’s anxiety about math, the more anticipating math activated the posterior insula—a fold of tissue located deep inside the brain just above the ear that is associated with registering direct threats to the body as well as the experience of pain. Interestingly, math anxiety levels were not associated with brain activity in the insula or in any other neural region when volunteers were doing math.

The work suggests that, for those with math anxiety, a painful sense of dread may begin long before a person sits down to take a math test. Previous research has shown that highly math anxious individuals tend to avoid math-related situations and even math-related career paths. The current work suggests that such avoidance stems in part from painful anxiety.

It is also consistent with other research from Beilock and Lyons, in which they showed that the mere anticipation of doing mathematics changes functioning in the brains of people with high levels of math anxiety. Beilock’s work, supported by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education, has also shown that mathematics anxiety can begin as early as first grade, and that female elementary school teachers often transmit their math anxiety to their female students.

This latest study points to the value of seeing math anxiety not just as a proxy for poor math ability, but as an indication there can be a real, negative psychological reaction to the prospect of doing math. This reaction needs to be addressed like any other phobia, the researchers say.

Rather than simply piling on math homework for students who are anxious about math, students need active help to become more comfortable with the subject. For instance, Beilock has shown that writing about math anxieties before a test can reduce one’s worries and lead to better performance.

Source: University of Chicago

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