Have you ever known someone who stresses and develops anxiety when they are asked to do math? While experts have recognized the behavioral aspects of math anxiety for over 50 years, research has been limited on the biological underpinnings of the stress.
In a new study, Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have determined that anxiety elicited when confronted with math problems is a biological event similar to other forms of anxiety.
Experts say this is the first study to show how brain function differs in people who have math anxiety from those who don’t.
Investigators performed a series of brain scans while second- and third-grade students did addition and subtraction. They discovered that those who feel panicky about doing math had increased activity in brain regions associated with fear, which caused decreased activity in parts of the brain involved in problem-solving.
“The same part of the brain that responds to fearful situations, such as seeing a spider or snake, also shows a heightened response in children with high math anxiety,” said Vinod Menon, Ph.D.
During the study, Menon’s team performed functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans on 46 second- and third-grade students with low and high math anxiety. Children were assessed for math anxiety while outside the scanner.
Math anxiety is an under-studied phenomenon, Menon said, which still lacks formally established diagnostic criteria.
Tests for math anxiety ask people about their emotional responses to situations and problems involving math. Those with high levels of math anxiety respond to numerical problems with fear and worry, and also say they are anxious about situations such as being asked to solve a math problem in front of a class.
Menon noted that it is possible for someone to be good at math, but still suffer from math anxiety. However, over time, people with math anxiety tend to avoid advanced classes, leaving them with deficient math skills and limiting their career options.
The decision to investigate the biological basis behind math anxiety was an area of need.
“It’s remarkable that, although the phenomena was first identified over 50 years back, nobody had bothered to ask how math anxiety manifests itself in terms of neural activity,” Menon said. His team’s observations show that math anxiety is neurobiologically similar to other kinds of anxiety or phobias, he said.
“You cannot just wish it away as something that’s unreal. Our findings validate math anxiety as a genuine type of stimulus- and situation-specific anxiety.”
Experts believe the research findings may help them develop new strategies for addressing the problem, such as treatments used for generalized anxiety or phobias.
“The results are a significant step toward our understanding of brain function during math anxiety and will influence development of new academic interventions,” said Victor Carrion, MD.
In order to gain a perspective on the developmental origins of the problem, Menon’s team decided to study young children, ages 7- 9-year old. The study subjects were ranked by their scores and divided into high and low math anxiety groups for comparison.
Children in the high and low math anxiety groups had similar IQ scores, working memory, reading and math abilities, and generalized anxiety levels.
The kids performed addition and subtraction problems while their brains were scanned using fMRI. In the children with high math anxiety, the scans showed heightened activity in the amygdala, the brain’s main fear center, and also in a section of the hippocampus, a brain structure that helps form new memories.
High math anxiety was accompanied by decreased activity in several brain regions associated with working memory and numerical reasoning. Interestingly, analysis of brain connections showed that, in children with high math anxiety, the increased activity in the fear center influenced a reduced function in numerical information-processing regions of the brain.
Further, children with high math anxiety also showed greater connections between the amygdala and emotion-regulating regions of the brain.
The two groups also showed differences in performance: Children with high math anxiety were less accurate and significantly slower at solving math problems than children with low math anxiety.
The results suggest that, in math anxiety, math-specific fear interferes with the brain’s information-processing capacity and its ability to reason through a math problem.
The study is published in Psychological Science.
Source: Stanford University