Pain networks are activated when thinking about doing math, but not while actually doing it.
Do you start to panic when it comes time to split the bill at a restaurant? Can simple arithmetic sometimes make you break out in a sweat? Does reading about statistics in the newspaper make your heart race? You might have what is known as Math Anxiety. It is a real condition and, like any phobia, can affect your day-to-day life.
A study published in Plos One called “When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math,” sought to understand what goes on in the bodies and brains of people with high math anxiety (HMA) and whether it is simply a psychological phenomenon or whether it includes physiological symptoms.
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The researchers arrived at a particularly interesting conclusion: People with HMA activate pain networks in their brain while anticipating doing math, rather than while actually doing it. There are many reasons why this could be, but one is that once people start doing math, they become too busy to feel anxious.
“Given that people have a greater tendency to worry — and have more cognitive resources available to do so — when they are not engaged in a goal-directed task simply anticipating doing math may be most likely to induce a neural pain response among the highly math-anxious,” say the study authors.
This math related anxiety is all part of a vicious cycle where people believe they are not “math people,” and thus can’t do math. Unfortunately, this belief leads to them staying as far away as possible from math-related situations and thus never improving their skills or finding ways to alleviate their fears.
Even worse, in another study, “Intergenerational Effects of Parents’ Math Anxiety on Children’s Math Achievement and Anxiety,” published in Psychological Science, researchers found that parents who helped their children with their math homework but were anxious about their own math abilities, passed along their anxiety. Unfortunately, the vicious cycle can expand to include those around you as well.
Since there is no reason why math anxiety should be a heritable evolutionarily trait — math is a useful skill after all — it is especially interesting to look at how our bodies and brains react to the idea: “Math anxiety is an ideal test bed for expanding our understanding of how physically innocuous situations might elicit a neural response reflective of actual physical pain,” say the researchers of the study published in Plos One.
Fortunately there are some methods to alleviate your own math anxiety. Think of math as a challenge, rather than as a roadblock. You may have to work at it, but you can figure out any problem if you put the effort in. Don’t put pressure on yourself to rush through math situations that make you anxious. Take your time and write some of it down if necessary.
Last but not least, remember that math is creative. Although it may seem that since there is typically only one right answer in math then there must be only one way to do it, math is all around us and there is usually more than one way to solve a problem.
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