Math anxiety hits brain like physical pain

Nov. 1, 2012 at 4:39 PM
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CHICAGO, Nov. 1 (UPI) -- Anxiety about mathematics can create a response in the brain similar to when a person experiences physical pain, researchers at the University of Chicago say.

Brain scans showed brain areas active when highly math-anxious people prepare to do math overlap with the same areas that register the threat of bodily harm or, in some cases, physical pain, they said.

"For someone who has math anxiety, the anticipation of doing math prompts a similar brain reaction as when they experience pain -- say, burning one's hand on a hot stove," psychology Professor Sian Beilock said in a university release Thursday.

A surprising finding, researches said, was that it was anticipation of having to do math, and not actually doing math itself, that evoked the pain-like response.

"The brain activation does not happen during math performance, suggesting that it is not the math itself that hurts; rather the anticipation of math is painful," said researcher Ian Lyons, a 2012 graduate in psychology from the University of Chicago who is now a postdoctoral scholar at Western University in Ontario, Canada.

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, the researchers said.

Beilock and Lyons have published their findings in the journal PLoS One.

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