Many people, even if they are terrible spellers, will never cop to actually being a bad speller. But few need any prompting to formally address the world about their hatred or fear of mathematics. Is it the fractions? The infinite values? All the parentheses? Whatever the reason, an understanding of math at any level isn’t ingrained in everyone. Well, according to a study by Sian Beilock and Ian Lyons, the brain associates math anxiety with physical pain, such as slamming your head against a desk because you can’t solve for n. Schoolhouse Rock didn’t set us up for this.
Beilock, a psychology professor from UnChicago, and Lyons, a PhD graduate in psychology from UChicago and postdoctoral scholar at Ontario’s Western University, published their latest study in the current issue of PLoS One. For it, they used 14 adults whose math-weariness were gauged by a series of questions dealing with their anxiety over receiving a math book, walking to math class, or realizing math requirements for graduation. (Honestly, just typing that last part made my stomach turn a little.) It’s worth noting that these are people whose anxieties are mostly limited to math-related instances. No casually nervous Nellies allowed.
The volunteers’ brain activity was tested using an fMRI machine as they were given math and word problems to verify, such as testing the validity of set equations and figuring out whether a series of letters spells a word when the letters are reversed. (TOBOR? Only a Giant Freakin’ one.) The fMRI results showed the posterior insula, a tissue fold found deep in the brain that registers physical threats and pain, was activated as the subjects’ anxieties grew. Interestingly enough, when the actual math was being performed, any sign of math anxiety was absent. I’d compare it to the fear of riding a roller coaster or airplane, while recognizing a lack of displeasure while actually doing those things.
When combined with the men’s other work in this field, this study proves that the mere mention of math, rather than any actual problems to solve, will cause the brain to react as if actual harm is being done to the body, and that this unfortunate process can begin as early as the first grade. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting worked up over borrowing and carrying over, but it happens, and can affect the rest of a person’s life.
Part of my own math anxiety is deeply connected with the number of days between today and the day I was born. Not that I feel old just yet, but I did originally begin this article by talking about balancing a checkbook. Now that’ll make your nose bleed.