Anticipating math tasks can cause physical pain


Math anxiety is real. The stomach ache, the anxiousness, the nervous sweat. Researchers now know math anxiety triggers regions of the brain associated with physical pain and instinctive risk detection.

Real evidence of math anxiety

For people who experience high levels of anxiety when anticipating math tasks, encountering math will increase activity in regions of the brain associated with the feeling of physical pain. The more anxiety someone experiences, the more active that part of the brain is. Ian Lyons and his team of researchers explained, “We provide the first neural evidence indicating the nature of the subjective experience of math anxiety.”

Adults showed brain activity on fMRI

Researchers identified 14 adults whose anxiety was specifically math-related and not associated with any other activity. They were tested with an fMRI machine measuring brain activity as they performed math tasks. They were asked to verify equations as well as work word problems.

The scans showed that the worry of upcoming math events triggered a response in the brain similar to physical pain. The higher the anxiety, the more math anticipation activated the posterior insula, a part of the brain located above the ear which is associated with acknowledging threats to the body as well as physical pain.

It’s the anticipation, not the act

These findings, when considered in conjunction with other studies which show that math anxiety actually decreases activity in the part of the brain that is needed to solve math problems, reveal a need to address math anxiety specifically to improve functioning with basic, every day math skills. Just anticipating the distressing event could be associated with the activation of neural regions contributing to processing physical pain.

Source: MedicalNewsToday, PLoS One


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