I used to be fairly convinced that doing math made me ill. Of course, long division didn’t kill me, despite my worst fears. But there is evidence that the anxiety math causes number-phobic schoolchildren everywhere is not only real, but that it can cause real pain.
In a study published Oct. 31 in the open access journal PLOS ONE, researchers compared the brain activity of two groups — high anxiety math doers and low anxiety math doers — when they were presented with word and math problems. Even the anticipation of a difficult math problem set the brains of people with high levels of math anxiety into a spiral. Before they saw the problem, a sign flashed indicating whether they would be shown a word or math problem and its level of difficulty. According to the study, the promise of a difficult math problem caused anxious people to show a significant amount of activity in four regions of the brain. Two of the regions — the dorso-posterior insula and the mid-cingulate cortex — are associated with the experience of pain.
The study’s authors wrote that the results “suggest that even anticipating an unpleasant event is associated with activation of neural regions involved in pain processing” — a departure from most previous studies on the subject of pain as a reaction to unpleasant experiences like math and social rejection.
Since it is the anticipation of the math problem rather than the problem itself that is causing the anxiety, it is possible that
a different approach to teaching math in schools is required. With American students ranked 32nd in the world in mathematical proficiency, reducing the pain associated with the subject could only help.