GMA News Online

Math really does hurt, science proves

November 2, 2012 4:57pm
Maybe there is something to the claim that thinking about mathematics hurts.
Researchers from the University of Chicago have found anxiety about math can prompt a brain response similar to physical pain, Science Daily reported.
"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, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on math anxiety .
But the researchers clarified it is more the anticipation of having to do math, and doing math itself, that registers pain.

Painful anticipation
Ian Lyons, a 2012 PhD graduate in psychology from UChicago and a postdoctoral scholar at Western University in Ontario, Canada, added the brain activation happens not during math performance - "rather the anticipation of math is painful."
Their work suggests a painful sense of dread for those with math anxiety may begin long before a person sits down to take a math test.
Previous research showed 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," Science Daily said.
The current work is also consistent with other research showing 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, also showed mathematics anxiety can begin as early as first grade, and female elementary school teachers often transmit their math anxiety to their female students.
Research tests
In their paper "When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math," the two said they worked with 14 adults shown to have math anxiety.
Questions gauged anxiety in activities such as receiving a math textbook, walking to math class or realizing math requirements for graduation.
The volunteers were tested in an fMRI machine, which let researchers examine their brain activity as they did math.
Volunteers were given mathematics equations to verify such as the equation (12 x 4) -- 19 = 29; as well as short word puzzles.
Science Daily said the scans showed 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," it said.
Yet, it said math anxiety levels were not associated with brain activity in the insula or in any other neural region when volunteers were doing math.
The latest study also indicates there can be a "real, negative psychological reaction" to the prospect of doing math.
The researchers said such a reaction needs to be addressed like any other phobia.
Beilock added students may need active help to become more comfortable with the subject, noting that writing about math anxieties before a test can reduce worries and lead to better performance.  — TJD, GMA News
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