Can the mere thought of school work cause pain? It might if you suffer from performance anxiety. A new brain study suggests that people with math anxiety may feel something like physical pain when they anticipate doing math problems.

If you’re wondering about the implications for other forms of academic anxiety, I am too. But the news isn’t all bad.  To see why, consider the details.

Ian Lyons and Sian Beilock performed fMRI scans on 28 adult volunteers who had been evaluated for math anxiety. While researchers recorded brain activity, each volunteer was asked to do a set of “homework” problems.

Some of the problems were word tasks. People were asked to decide if a word, when reversed, spelled another word, as "god" becomes "dog" when spelled backwards.

The other problems were arithmetic tasks, like "True or false: (3x6) – 4 = 12." 

The problems varied in difficulty and were presented in a mixed order. But crucially, participants were given a heads-up before each task was presented -- a visual symbol that warned if the next problem was going to be a word task or a math task.

And here is the key result: When people knew that a math problem was coming up, individuals with math anxiety experienced more brain activity in regions linked with threat detection and physical pain. That was true even after controlling for participants responses to cues that a word task was coming up next. And it was true after controlling for a person’s overall trait anxiety and competence on math problems.

So there it is. Anxiety hurts. Anticipating the thing we fear hurts. No wonder people shrink from the tasks that make them anxious, and the consequences can be pretty bad, can’t they? Math anxiety has been documented in children as young as 6 years old, and it fuels a vicious cycle. Anxious kids avoid math, get less practice in math, and fall further and further behind – reinforcing their anxiety.

But there is another wrinkle to this study that I find very interesting. When these same participants went on to perform the math tasks, they did not experience elevated activity levels in the pain-perceiving parts of the brain. The psychological pain was linked only with the anticipation of the deed, not the deed itself.

It’s hard not to think of all the old wisdom. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself…" "Cowards die many times…" If this is true about math, might it also be true about a lot of other things? Anxiety about reading? Writing? Public speaking?

If it is, we’ve got more reason than ever to be cagey about the way we handle these anxieties. Are kids choking on anxiety in the classroom? As Sian Beilock has noted, we may help them with specific, research-based tactics, like having students write about their math anxieties before taking a test.

But I’m also thinking we might reframe our tests and drills and exercises. In one study investigating the effects of racial stereotypes on test performance, African American students performed better on an IQ test when the true nature of that test was concealed. The students were told that the test items were “puzzles” and that the researchers wanted the students’ opinions of them.

Can we apply this approach to academic work in general? Take some of the bite out of anxiety-provoking school tasks by making them over into games and low-stakes challenges?

It may require some serious rethinking about the way we approach school and learning. But I’ve little doubt that some teachers and parents have figured out how to do it. Heck, some kids seem to have the right attitude, irrespective of what goes on in their classrooms – perhaps because they’ve gotten the message that mistakes are a necessary and forgivable part of the learning process.

Still, it seems to me that repackaging school work is only part of the solution. Assuming the fMRI research is confirmed by future studies -- that anticipation is more painful than the actual performance of a task -- we still have the problem of motivation. A math-anxious person might get over his anxiety. But that's no guarantee he'll enjoy mathematics.

The ultimate answer may lie in finding ways to make difficult intellectual tasks more rewarding. And there, I suspect, we need to consider what motivates professional thinkers, mathematicians, and scientists. The delights of tinkering and exploration. The satisfaction that comes from finding a deeper meaning. The experience of wonder and awe.

Is it naïve to think that anxious students are capable of appreciating mathematics and other dreaded subjects on an intellectual level? I don’t think so. Memorizing the formula for pi might seem like drudgery. Trying to derive pi yourself – by measuring the dimensions of a series of regular polygons – is far more interesting, especially when it reveals how ancient peoples accomplished the task without the aid of computers. There are many intellectual rewards being hidden from students with anxiety. We need to help kids experience those rewards.  


You can read the full text of the paper by Lyons and Beilock at PLoS One:

Lyons IM and Beilock SL. 2012. When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math. PLoS One. 2012;7(10):e48076

Professor Beilock is also the author of Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to and she is a blogger on Psychology Today.

In addition to checking out her blog, read more about her research on math anxiety in my post, “Smart first graders choke on math anxiety: How to nip it in the bud.”

If you're interested in some of the other points raised here, check out my Psychology Today post, "A chronic lack of awe" and "Be permissive, raise a scientist."

To read the original study that presented an IQ test as a set of puzzles, see:

Brown RP and Ray EA 2006. The difference isn't black and white: stereotype threat and the race gap on Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrices. J Appl Psychol. 91(4):979-85.

Teaser image of pensive girl by Alessandro Pucci

About the Author

Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.

Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., is a writer and anthropologist interested in how parents, peers, evolution, and cultural forces combine to shape the way kids learn and grow.

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