Math is a pain in the brain

November 27, 2012 by
Filed under: Research, Spinewave Bulletin 

“Mental Abuse To Humans” is what my niece calls it. Mathematics anxiety can prompt a response in the brain similar to when a person experiences physical pain, according to new research at the University of Chicago.

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,” said Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on math anxiety.

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,” added Ian Lyons, a 2012 PhD graduate in psychology from UChicago and a postdoctoral scholar at Western University in Ontario, Canada.

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 said. 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, Beilock said. Beilock’s work has shown, for instance, that writing about math anxieties before a test can reduce one’s worries and lead to better performance.

Reference: Ian M. Lyons, Sian L. Beilock. When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (10): e48076

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