Does math hurt your brain?

According to a new study, the mere prospect of a mathematical problem causes pain centers to ignite in brains with a phobia of numbers. Researchers at the University of Chicago measured the neural activity of 28 adults, 14 who had been identified with high math anxiety and 14 with low math anxiety.

Does math hurt your brain?

According to a new study, the mere prospect of a mathematical problem causes pain centers to ignite in brains with a phobia of numbers. Researchers at the University of Chicago measured the neural activity of 28 adults, 14 who had been identified with high math anxiety and 14 with low math anxiety. Does math make you anxious? The latest research shows that even the idea of arithmetic can trigger a physical reaction that looks a lot like brain pain. The hypothesis was that the expectation of having to do calculations would be what would generate anxiety, which in turn would generate pain.

Each group was asked a series of verbal and mathematical problems while an MRI machine scanned their brain activity. A study conducted by psychologists Ian Lyon and Sian Beilock has shown that this is not hyperbole: some people who don't like mathematics do so because the idea of solving things with numbers is similar to the experience of physical pain. But mathematics? It is a cultural phenomenon that, while certainly useful, is not a matter of life and death. Beilock's work, with support from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education, has also shown that math anxiety can begin as early as the first grade and that elementary school teachers often transmit their math anxiety to their students.

Lyons and Beilock were surprised to discover that their test subjects showed more activity in the InSP part of the brain, as well as in a connected area called the middle cingulate cortex, or MCC, which is also involved in pain processing, while they waited for the next math problem to appear. The researchers studied 14 subjects who suffered from anxiety about doing math, but not generalized anxiety, in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine that took pictures of their brain activity. And the phobia of mathematics became a useful study objective, since people who find mathematics challenging aren't ashamed to talk about their fears. In the case of HMAs, their ability to perform more complex mathematical problems was more affected the higher their score in the SMARS evaluation; there was no such correlation when it came to verbal problems.

Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that it was the anticipation of having to do math, and not doing the math itself, that seemed like a pain in the brain. Since what seems to attract people most is the anticipation of mathematics, and not the sums themselves, it would be worth investigating whether there is a different way of teaching mathematics in schools. While they were inside the machine, a colored light blinked before each series of questions appeared, indicating whether they would be language or mathematical questions and what difficulty (easy or difficult) they would have. Previous research has shown that people who are very anxious about mathematics tend to avoid situations related to mathematics and even careers related to mathematics.

For the study, students worked with 14 adults who demonstrated math anxiety based on their answers to a series of questions about mathematics. The researchers recruited 14 people with high mathematical anxiety and asked them to solve some algebra problems while an MRI scanner looked at their brains.

Louise Simard
Louise Simard

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