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Math anxiety starts in the brain


People who have math anxiety also have different brain function.

A series of brain scans conducted while second and third graders did addition and subtraction revealed that those who feel anxiety about math had increased activity in the brain in an area associated with fear. That increased activity led to decreased activity in the parts of the brain used for 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, PhD, the Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who led the research.

Menon’s team performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans on 46 students with varying degrees of math anxiety. Menon believes math anxiety is understudied. People with high levels of math anxiety respond to numerical problems with fear and worry, and they are anxious about situations such as being asked to solve a math problem in front of a class. It is possible for someone to be good at math but still experience anxiety about it. Over time, these children will avoid advanced math classes which leaves them at a disadvantage with career options.

While the behavioral aspects seemed well documented, Menon and his team wanted to find biological evidence of its existence.

“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 noted. “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.”

Source: MedicalNewsToday, Psychological Science

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