It’s no secret that a lot of people dislike math. Whether it is calculating a tip on a restaurant bill, reading a retirement statement, or being called up to the board to work out a problem in school, these activities can send kids and adults alike into a panic. It’s called math anxiety, and the phenomenon is described as tension, apprehension, and fear about math.

But what exactly is math anxiety? And, how does it relate to the fluency with which we juggle numbers in our mind or how we perform on a math test? In a new paper published a few weeks ago in the journal PLOS ONE, my former Ph.D. student, Ian Lyons, and I set out to find some answers to these questions.

It’s easy to think about math anxiety as simply a stand in for poor math performance—meaning that those who are bad at math have a lot of anxiety about their poor skills. My lab has taken a different view on the situation, suggesting that anxiety about doing math robs people of the brainpower they might otherwise use to succeed. We reasoned that if there is any merit to this latter view, then we might actually see evidence of anxious reactions when people simply anticipate an upcoming math test. Finding that math-anxious folks react negatively in the lead up to a math event could suggest that math anxiety is more about the psychological interpretation of doing math and less about the math itself. After all, they are just numbers on a page.

We began by inviting people who professed to have a lot of anxiety about doing math (and a group of folks who weren’t at all anxious to serve as controls) to perform some problem-solving tasks while we peered inside their heads using fMRI. Sometimes, volunteers were given mathematics equations to verify—for example, the validity of the following equation: (12 x 4) – 19 = 29. While in the scanner, subjects were also shown short word puzzles. For these puzzles, people saw a series of letters (for example: yrestym) and had to determine if reversing the order of the letters produced a correctly spelled English word. And, most importantly, before people saw either the math or word problems, we cued them as to what was about to appear. This way, we could look at neural activation not only when people actually completed the math or word problems, but when they were simply getting ready to do the problems too.

What did we find? Simply anticipating doing math led to a response in the brain similar to physical pain. The higher a person’s anxiety about math, the more anticipating math activated the posterior insula—a fold of tissue located deep inside the brain just above the ear that is associated with registering direct threats to the body as well as the experience of pain. Interestingly, math anxiety levels were not associated with brain activity in the insula or in any other neural region when volunteers were doing math—nor was math anxiety positively associated with any part of the word puzzles.

Our results underscore the idea that for those with math anxiety, just anticipating having to do math can be an aversive experience. It’s not so much the math itself, but rather thinking about what is going to come our way. Our neural machinery doesn’t always make a clear distinction between what is physical (burning a hand on a hot stove) and what is mental (anticipating an upcoming math test). Knowing this, we can start working out the myriad ways to address math anxiety. For instance, helping people reappraise or reevaluate their negative thoughts when prepping for a math test may help reverse the panic a lot of folks feel when they realize the numbers are coming their way.

For more on how to deal with math anxiety, check out my book Choke!

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