Study: Worrying About Math Can Activate Pain Areas In the Brain

The brain registers the anticipation of math -- but crucially, not math itself -- as physical pain.

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PROBLEM: I'm not one for self-diagnosis, but judging from my dread of calculating tips and my avoidance of the cash register at my otherwise-ideal summer job at a bookstore, I think I might be an HMA: someone with "high levels of mathematics-anxiety."

Are HMAs merely hysterical, or might math-induced dread be a real, visceral phenomenon?

METHODOLOGY: Sian Beilock (author of the best-selling Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To) and Ian Lyons of the University of Chicago identified 14 HMAs and 14 LMAs (low math-anxiety individuals) on the basis of their responses to a series of math-related hypotheticals.

While hooked up to an fMRI machine to measure their brain activity, the participants were given a series of word and math tasks to complete. Their ability to solve the problems didn't matter -- what did was their responses to the Pavlovian cues given before each task: a blue square signaling an upcoming word problem or a yellow circle indicating that math was next.

RESULTS: When math cues were show to HMAs, activity in four regions of the brain increased in proportion to their level of math anxiety. The more the subjects dreaded math, the greater the response from these regions, specifically those implicated in pain perception and the detection of physical threats.

This occurred even when controlling for the response to word-cues, performance on both types of tasks, and general anxiety traits, meaning that it was the specific anticipation of math, and not just any difficult task, that prompted the the subjects' reactions. But none of these brain responses occurred when the subjects were actually performing the math problems. They found no significant relationship between brain activity and math cues in LMAs.

Unexpectedly, in HMAs, the opposite effect was seen for word cues: Activity in these same brain regions decreased as level of math anxiety increased.

CONCLUSION: When people with high levels of math anxiety anticipate having to do math, they experience pain-related brain activity.

IMPLICATIONS: According to Beilock and Lyons, the pre-math visceral pain registered by HMAs is validating, giving them "every right to feel anxious" about numbers. The negative effect of word-cues on brain activity underscores this assertion: It "raises the interesting prospect that, in the context of doing math, anticipating the word task may have served as a kind of refuge, in that, for the moment at least, it meant one didn't have to do math."

Fellow HMAs would probably relate. But the results also show that math itself isn't painful, raising the possibility that people can be helped to get over their anxiety and go on to embrace math, signing up for math classes and even pursuing math-related careers.

The full study, "When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math," is published in the journal PLos ONE.