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Newly calculated: maths anxiety triggers pain in the brain

Thinking about maths problems can produce alarming reactions. andres.thor

Newly calculated: maths anxiety triggers pain in the brain

Thinking about maths problems can produce alarming reactions. andres.thor

So we have a problem for you. Take a moment to steady yourself, maybe sharpen your pencil. Don’t unpack your calculator, and leave your phone to one side. This one will be purely mental – a spot of addition, long division and some basic trigonometry.

Are you sweating yet? Feeling anxious? And if so, does that anxiety feel like physical pain?

A paper published today in PLOS ONE suggests that, when anticipating a mathematical task or activity, people with higher levels of mathematics anxiety experience brain activity in regions associated with threats and pain.

The mathematical tasks the subjects were asked to imagine included:

  • Receiving a math textbook
  • Walking to a math class
  • Being given a set of addition problems to solve on paper
  • Realising 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.

It is worth emphasising that this study relies on modern medical magnetic resonance imaging of a kind that was absolutely impossible even 20 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?



The researchers themselves (one from the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago and the other from Western University in Canada) have included several important caveats for this research.

They noted that the effect was not seen when subjects were actually performing a mathematical task, and that: “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 showed, more broadly, that “anticipating an unpleasant event is associated with activation of neural regions involved in pain processing.”

That the authors focused 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 mathematics.

It must also be recognised that 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.

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 centre to take the Law School Admittance Test”, or “completing one’s tax return,” which, even though it is often nowadays done online (thus eliminating the need to do any mathematics at all), is still 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 proclaims: “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, societies that have the highest-ranking mathematical achievement for 15-year-olds?

A problem to solve

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 it to make an even more determined effort to teach mathematical skills and principles to students at as early an age as possible, so 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.