Maths can be a real pain

  • 04/11/2012

By 3 News online staff

Mathematics can be difficult, and a new study shows even thinking about doing it can physically hurt.

Researchers Ian Lyons and Sian Beilock at the University of Chicago have shown how increases in brain activity appear in regions associated with pain and threat detection, when people with "high levels of mathematics-anxiety" are presented with mathematic problems.

"Given our findings were specific to cue-activity, it is not that math itself hurts; rather, merely the anticipation of math is painful," the pair wrote in an article published in journal PLoS One.

"Anticipatory anxiety about math is grounded in the simulation of visceral threat and even pain."

It is believed to be the first scientific evidence that mathematics anxiety can directly cause physical pain, which is surprising because being "a recent cultural invention… it seems unlikely that a purely evolutionary mechanism would drive a neural pain response elicited by the prospect of doing math".

"This opens up the prospect that pain network activation is not limited to situations directly related to evolved pain responses," say the authors.

Strangely however, when doing the problems themselves, pain-related brain activity went away.

"Any observed relation between math anxiety and pain would likely be more dependent upon one’s feelings and worries about math (i.e. their psychological interpretation or anticipation of the event) than something inherent in the math task itself."

People afraid of doing mathematics don't do as well at solving problems and are less likely to go into career paths related to the field. The authors say now they know the pain associated with mathematics anxiety is real, they can work on ways to fix it.

"I’m really interested in understanding the source of the anxiety so that we can help all students perform up to their best in this important area," Beilock tells CNN.

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