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Anxiety and Working Memory: Trading One for the Other

Anxiety and Working Memory: Trading One for the Other

The dark side of a good memory.

Anxiety is no longer reserved for overworked adults in cluttered cubicles. Children as young as first and second grade are experiencing the crippling grasp of anxiety, most notably in the classroom. The Department of Psychology and Committee on Education at the University of Chicago used a pool of 154 first and second-graders and placed them in low and high stress test scenarios to see if anxiety had any adverse effects on their ability to solve math problems efficiently and accurately.

Anxiety affects students with high working memory

In “Math Anxiety, Working Memory and Math Achievement in Early Elementary School,” researchers found that students with higher levels of working memory (the system which allows the brain to store and manipulate information for the purpose of completing verbal and nonverbal tasks) were more affected by anxiety than students with comparably less working memory and a lower skill set. In an ironic twist, students who had better grades and featured higher levels of competency made more mistakes and scored comparably lower on tasks than did students with relatively lower performance levels and anxiety levels. When students were placed in a low-stress test environment, students with more working memory returned to high achievement levels, outperforming fellow students with less working memory.

At first glance, the findings might seem a bit obvious; many people perform better under minimal amounts of pressure, and performance anxiety is prevalent in everything from sports to sex to art and music. However, the study delves deeper, exploring how anxiety renders large amounts of working memory essentially useless in even the brightest students. But haven’t high-performing students already developed the necessary mechanisms to cope with their anxiety? Isn’t that how they worked their way into advanced placement classes and better grades, by pushing through their performance anxiety?

Anxious students use only a part of their intellectual capacity

Not so. Evidently advanced students with high levels of math anxiety are only using a portion of their intellectual capacity. Working memory disruption is when anxiety appropriates brain functions that control thinking and memory skills necessary for critical and analytical thinking. As stress levels rise, portions of the brain that would otherwise be used for problem-solving and analysis instead become used for worry and doubt. Many students with high levels of working memory and higher overall levels of academic competence were so drastically affected by anxiety that they scored on par with peers featuring less working memory. High levels of working memory are a blessing and a curse; while it promotes analytical skills, it can make students more emotionally vulnerable, rendering portions of their skill set useless. Students with lower working memory are not impervious to stress, but they have developed simple, logic-based methods to compensate in places where advanced problem-solving is required.

Anxiety grows as the student gets older

Math anxiety is a small microcosm under the greater anxiety umbrella, but it raises many important issues concerning emotional health, academic performance, and coping mechanisms. Researchers wanted to focus on younger students because they found math anxiety gets progressively worse as students get older. Students with high anxiety develop negative and self-defeating attitudes towards math-related tasks and experience a decrease in competency over time. The worst case scenario finds an otherwise mathematically-inclined individual’s being steered away from a potentially successful career and fruitful experiences with the subject by a crippling case of math anxiety, where even the mention of mathematics conjures up negative thoughts and images.

Reference:Gerardo Ramirez, Elizabeth A. Gunderson, Susan C. Levine, Sian L. Beilock (2012). Math Anxiety, Working Memory and Math Achievement in Early Elementary School Journal of Cognition and Development

Patrick Meyer
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