Does math anxiety trigger pain networks in the brain?

In an article being published in PLOS ONE, a leading social science research journal, two researchers (one from the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago and the other from Western University in London Ontario Canada) found that when anticipating a mathematical task or activity, persons with higher levels of mathematics anxiety experience brain activity in regions associated with threats and pain.

Some of the mathematical tasks that the subjects were asked to imagine include “Receiving a math textbook,” “Walking to a math class,” “Being given a set of addition problems to solve on paper”, and “Realizing you have to take a certain number of math classes to meet the requirements for graduation.” The individual subjects for this study had previously been identified as “high math anxiety” or “low math anxiety” based on an earlier test. The full article is available from the PLOS One website.

It is worth emphasising that this study relies on modern medical—magnetic resonance—imaging of a kind that was absolutely impossible even twenty years ago.  This ability to look at the neurological and biochemical activities accompanying qualitative experiences is a game changer that educators and social scientists must become comfortable with.

So is mathematics really that traumatic? And what can be done about it?

First of all, it is important to note that the researchers themselves have included several important caveats for this research. For instance, they noted that this effect was not seen when subjects were actually performing a mathematical task. Thus, they conclude, “it is not that math itself hurts; rather, the anticipation of math is painful.”

One might also ask which came first, the pain or the anxiety?

More importantly, the authors acknowledge that while their experiment dealt specifically with mathematics anxiety, their results should should be interpreted as “anticipating an unpleasant event is associated with activation of neural regions involved in pain processing.” That the authors focussed on mathematics anxiety reflects both positive and negative societal pressures. Mathematical skills are crucial, and all nations acknowledge there is a crisis. But at least in the English speaking world it is socially acceptable to be bad at it.

And it must also be recognized that the mathematics anxiety, as studied in this test, might well be, to some extent, a cultural artifact of this test being conducted at a North American university, where “fear of mathematics” has been part of the cultural milieu for decades. Recall that in 1992, Mattel released Teen Talk Barbie, which included a speech chip that among other things enunciated the phrase “Math class is tough.”

It is entirely possible that similar results would be obtained for any particularly dreaded cognitively challenging task, such as “walking to the test center to take the Law School Admittance Test” or the equivalents in other nations, or “completing one’s tax return,” which, even though it is often nowadays done with a computer program or online (thus eliminating the need to do any mathematics at all), nonetheless is a dreaded occasion for many, including the present authors. Perhaps future studies can illuminate whether there are differences for these types of tasks.

With regards to mathematics, even today items are readily available online or in novelty stores with messages that are openly hostile to mathematics and mathematics education. One currently available T-shirt declares “MATH: Mental Abuse to Humans.” Another T-shirt has the inscription “I’m too pretty to do math.” A hat with visor declares “Math Is Hard. Let’s Go Shopping.”

Would the same results be obtained if the test were administered, say, in Hong Kong, Finland or South Korea, which societies have the highest ranking mathematical achievement for 15-year olds?

In any event, whether or not the findings have cross-cultural validity, one can ask what can or should be done about them. Is the proper response to bury one’s head in the sand and give up on a high level of mathematical literacy in a society? Or is the proper response to make an even more determined effort to teach mathematical skills and principles to students at an early an age as possible, so that they are comfortable with mathematics and mathematical reasoning when they are teens and adults?

Needless to say, as in an earlier article, we argue the latter, and we here reiterate that this requires significant public investment not just white papers.

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