When maths actually hurts... and how to make it stop.

15th November 2012

Can the idea of solving a string of equations make your head throb? Does anticipating a maths exam give you a stomach ache? If so, not only are you not alone, but it is not just your imagination… what you are feeling is real, from a neurological point of view anyway. A recent study from the US published in scientific journal PLoS ONE, has shown that maths anxiety actually generates activity in the same areas in your brain which register the experience of bodily pain, and the threat of attack.

Maths Hurts

Psychologists Ian Lyon and Sian Beilock explain that "Mathematics anxiety is ideal... for expanding our understanding of how physically innocuous situations might elicit a neural response of actual physical pain." Specifically, in this study, they wanted to see if the anticipation of doing maths provoked the same negative neurological response as the activity itself.

The SMARS Scale

Their main focus was people rated as having 'high levels of mathematical anxiety' according to the SMARS (Short Maths Anxiety Rating Scale) a scale designed in 1972 for the specific purpose of testing levels of maths anxiety. And yes, the fact that there already exists an accepted psychological scale for measurement of the problem does say a great deal about how prevalent an issue maths anxiety continues to be.

Subjects were warned before they were presented with a challenging maths problem, in order to test their reaction to the period of anticipation. They were scanned by MRI throughout the experiment, and the results were rather surprising.

"A Visceral, Aversive Bodily Reaction"

The researchers found that areas in the brains of these poor HMA’s known to process physical pain and personal threat lit up like big anxious Christmas trees in the period of anticipation after being warned that a hard maths problem was coming. Researchers described this as an extreme "visceral, aversive bodily reaction" and, not surprisingly, these subjects then scored poorly on the maths problems.

Interestingly though, when HMA’S actually had to do maths, their neurological response calmed down significantly suggesting that "It is not that maths itself that hurts; rather, the anticipation of maths that is painful" as the paper concludes and this provides the "first neural evidence indicating the subjective nature of maths anxiety".

This means the pain pathways of the brain can be activated by things such as maths which have no relation to physically painful experiences (especially with the abolition of corporal punishment!) and this could shed light on maths anxiety as a psychological phenomenon like any other phobia. This means it can be more easily treated and understood, and hopefully the knowledge can be used to improve the teaching of maths in schools.

Anticipation Worse Than Reality

Most importantly for the proportion of ConquerMaths.com students who do experience maths anxiety this study really has shown the truth of the old adage that "we have nothing to fear, but fear itself". It is not the actual action of sitting down and doing maths, and revising your skills that can make some of us feel so awful... It is the anticipation beforehand coupled with the physical pain and wretched conviction that it will be hard is what freezes some people and stops them attempting the maths which, when you have access to a program like ConquerMaths.com simply should never be too hard to manage, and certainly nowhere near as hard as it will seem in your head!

Procrastinate No More

At ConquerMaths.com, it may be easier than it sounds, but we suggest that next time you are putting off doing your ConquerMaths.com lessons and revision, remember that while you procrastinate you are actually experiencing the very worst that maths, and your brain chemistry has to offer!

So it seems that the only way to reduce this anxiety is to simply sit down and get on with it. And that has the added benefit that if you are doing your ConquerMaths.com lessons, you are preparing for exams, coursework and anything the course might throw at you, instead of just procrastinating and anticipating something to be much worse than it could ever be, and in the meantime only causing yourself genuine pain, without any gain. Face your fears about maths by doing maths, and your fears will fade. Science says so.

What do you think? If you experience maths anxiety do you find the anticipation  far worse than the reality? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

Read the original news source article here
Read the original PLoS ONE journal entry here

Full Citation: Lyons IM, Beilock SL (2012) When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math. PLoS ONE 7(10): e48076. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048076