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With Math Anxiety, the Brain Feels the Pain

With Math Anxiety, the Brain Feels the PainNew research shows that math anxiety creates a response in the brain similar to when people experience physical pain.

Researchers at the University of Chicago used brain scans to determine that the areas of the brain active when people who are very anxious about math prepare to do math problems overlap with the same areas that register the threat of bodily harm and 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 researcher and psychologist Dr. Sian Beilock.

The researchers note that it was the anticipation of having to do math, and not actually doing the math, that looked like pain in the brain.

“The brain activation does not happen during math performance, suggesting that it is not the math itself that hurts — rather the anticipation of math is painful,” said Ian Lyons, a 2012 Ph.D. graduate in psychology from U of C, now a postdoctoral scholar at Western University in Ontario, Canada, who co-authored the study.

For the study, the researchers recruited 14 adults who were shown to have math anxiety based on their responses to a series of questions about math. Additional tests showed that these individuals were not overly anxious in general, according to the researchers, who note their heightened sense of anxiety was specific to math.

The study volunteers were tested in an fMRI machine, which allowed researchers to examine brain activity as they did math. Volunteers were given mathematics equations to verify — for example, the validity of the following equation: (12 x 4) – 19 = 29.

While in the fMRI scanner, subjects were also shown short word puzzles. For example, they were shown a series of letters, such as yrestym, and had to determine if reversing the order of the letters produced a correctly spelled English word.

The scans showed that the higher a person’s anxiety about math, the more anticipation about math activated the posterior insula, a fold of tissue located deep inside the brain just above the ear that is associated with registering direct threats to the body, as well as the experience of pain, the researchers said.

These anxiety levels were not associated with brain activity in the insula or in any other neural region when the volunteers were actually doing math.

The researchers suggest that for those with math anxiety, a painful sense of dread may begin long before a person sits down to take a math test.

Previous research has shown that highly math anxious individuals tend to avoid math-related situations and even math-related career paths. The current work suggests that such avoidance stems in part from painful anxiety.

The current work is also consistent with other research from Beilock and Lyons, in which they showed that the mere anticipation of doing mathematics changes functioning in the brains of people with high levels of math anxiety. Beilock’s work has also shown that mathematics anxiety can begin as early as first grade, and that female elementary school teachers often transmit their math anxiety to their female students.

This latest study indicates there can be a real, negative psychological reaction to the prospect of doing math.

This reaction needs to be addressed like any other phobia, according to the researchers, suggesting that students who are anxious about math need help to become more comfortable with the subject.

In previous studies, Beilock has shown that writing about math anxiety before a test can reduce worries and lead to better performance.

The latest study was published in PLOS One.

Source: University of Chicago

Man doing math photo by shutterstock.

With Math Anxiety, the Brain Feels the Pain

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). With Math Anxiety, the Brain Feels the Pain. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 1 Nov 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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