Math Anxiety is Rooted Deep in the Brain

Fagjun | Published 2017-04-17 09:14

Do you get math anxiety whenever you're faced with numbers? Don't get too down on yourself; a study has found that math anxious brains have a different way of solving math problems.

If you've always struggled in math classes growing up, the reason for it may lie deep in your brain. You may be using your brain more heavily than math-savvy people do. Therefore, math-anxious and math-savvy people approach the same mathematical problems in different ways.

How Math Anxiety Manifests in the Brain

How do you handle math problems?

A team of researchers put adult participants through a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner. These participants were either math-savvy or had math anxious. While in the scanner, the participants had to evaluate simple math problems. For example, the researchers asked them if 9+2 equals 11. Participants had to answer if the equations were correct or not.

A fMRI scanner measures blood flow in the brain. Blood flow to a certain part of the brain indicates activity in that area. This will help researchers ascertain which parts of the brain are active as the participants solve math problems.

Each group of participants—the math-anxious and the math-savvy—had nearly equal response times to the questions. They also correctly answered roughly the same number of questions.

Of course, these results weren't really the ones that the researchers were looking for. Instead, they looked at the brain activity in the participants as they evaluated the math equations.

According to the results of the tests, math-savvy people exhibited less activity in a part of the brain called the frontoparietal attention network. This brain region has something to do with working memory, which is what enables us to retain information for a short period of time. It also has an involvement in problem-solving. Strangely, people performed better at math if the frontoparietal attention network wasn't very active.

Conversely, more activity means math anxiety. If the brain is more active, this means that people are using more brain resources. Basically, the brain sort of overloads. A brain in this condition can still enable people to solve simple math problems, but it won't be able to help with more complicated problems.

It may be that math-savvy people are using automated techniques to deal with math problems. The process is simpler, and the person doesn't have to think much about it. This leads to less activity in the frontoparietal attention network.

Practice Makes Perfect

Since math-anxious people have more activity in their brain while solving simple math problems, the same could be true when they're solving more complicated math problems. Researchers think that math anxiety makes people use demanding strategies in solving problems. However, this can backfire when the math problems become more challenging because it may push your brain too hard.

The research doesn't say anything about how to get over math anxiety, but automating computation strategies might work. After all, it's what math-savvy people rely on. This doesn't mean rote learning, of course. It may help to get used to solving math problems, which means practicing is key. Some people may be naturally good at math, but that doesn't mean that you can't try to be as good as they are.

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