Maths Anxiety Can Cause You Physical Pain

If you are mathematically challenged, your so-called pain should no longer be vilified – you actually do feel it! At least, as you’re psyching yourself up to sit in that chair in the exam hall to do it.

Previous research has indicated that there is such a thing as “math anxiety” – that is, an anxiety that some people have that is specifically related to doing mathematics. It’s kind of like a phobia of mathematics. It can develop from as early as first grade and can even be passed down from teachers to students.

Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, is an expert in this area and she and Ian Lyons have conducted research into the brain’s reaction when math-anxious individuals do maths. Their findings were reported in a paper “When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math”, published in PLOS One.

14 adults with the math anxiety condition were tested in an fMRI machine while they were given a series of math-related questions. The results showed that as they were preparing to do the math, the posterior insula was activated. This is a region of the brain just above the ear that is associated with registering direct threats and the experience of pain. Interestingly, this area was not activated as the volunteers were actually doing the math.

The idea is to show that students who have math anxiety actually have a physically painful response when confronted with the mere prospect of mathematics. As with any anxiety, the treatment shouldn’t involve piling more on, but instead working through the issue so that they can become more comfortable with the subject and address their anxiety. Beilock has shown that, for example, writing about your anxiety before the test can help to address the worries and subsequently lead to better performance.

So when those non-geeks tell you that maths makes their brains hurt, they might not be entirely lying to you. Even if you can’t seem to comprehend how anyone could hate the glory that is mathematics…

[Via Geekosystem and MedicalXpress | Image Credit]