Researchers at the University of Chicago have confirmed what any math challenged student can tell you:
Math is a pain. Not just imaginary pain, but real physical pain.
“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,” said Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on math anxiety.
Beilock and Ian Lyons, a PhD graduate in psychology from the University of Chicago, conducted a small study to find out why math can incite such fear and dread. The two reported their findings in a paper, “When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math,” in the current issue of PlOS One.
28 adults were involved in the study, equally split between those with low and high anxiety over math. Participants completed a word task and a math task while neural activity was measured using an MRI scan.
Researchers found that anxiety over a math test activates regions of the brain linked with the experience of physical pain and visceral threat detection. The higher an individual’s math anxiety, the more neural activity was increased in the posterior insula — a fold of tissue located deep inside the brain that is associated with registering direct threats to the body as well as the experience of pain.
Surprisingly, it was the anticipation of having to do math, and not actually doing math itself, that looked like pain in the brain.
Previous studies have shown that psychological stress such as social rejection or a traumatic break-up can elicit feelings of physical pain. That led some researchers to conclude that there was an evolutionary explanation for the pain – it acted as deterrent on anti-social behavior.
“Mathematics, by contrast, is a recent cultural invention,” Beilock and Lyons wrote. “It seems unlikely that a purely evolutionary mechanism would drive a neural pain response elicited by the prospect of doing math. Thus, math anxiety is an ideal test bed for expanding our understanding of how physically innocuous situations might elicit a neural response reflective of actual physical pain.”
The current study is consistent with previous research by Beilock and Lyons, which found that the anticipation of doing math changes functioning in the brains of people with high levels of math anxiety. Beilock’s work has also shown that fear of math can begin as early as first grade, and that female elementary school teachers often transmit their math anxiety to their female students.