While starting out to write a post about sleep and the brain, a topic in neuroscience with many of its most fundamental questions left unanswered, I stumbled upon two articles that resonated within me. My personal experience of studying mathematics has to be termed angst-driven or at the very least discomforting which is why I instead chose to write about two recent publications on the connection between math and fear. It turns out that the same brain areas that let us know we are in pain or danger also regulate our response to mathematics, at least when it is a negative one. This is one of the first studies to show that just anticipating something unpleasant recruits the same brain areas as pain processing does.
Researchers Ian Lyon and Sian Beilock from the University of Chicago investigated what the mere anticipation of an upcoming math task did to participants with a high degree of math-related anxiety. In response to a cue signaling that a task with arithmetic problems would be next, these individuals demonstrated a clear increase in activation in the posterior insular cortex and midline cingulate cortex, regions of the brain that besides physical pain and threat also react to social rejection. By using functional agnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that allows researchers to get images of the brain while a task is being performed, the researchers compared brain activity between participants that scored high for math-related anxiety and persons that scored low as they either solved an arithmetic problem or a memory task. Before each task a symbol was shown, indicating what the upcoming task would be.
While there was no difference between participants with high and low anxiety levels during the performance of the actual tasks, high math-anxiety participants showed an increased response in pain areas following the presentation of the math cue. That is to say, it is not actually doing math that hurts, it is knowing that you soon will be doing math that is painful.
In the same study, the authors tried to find out why some people with high levels of math-anxiety perform better than others. In their report published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, Lyon and Beilock report that what separates the high-performers from the low is the amount of activation in a network of structures associated with manipulation of numbers (inferior parietal lobule), as well as cognitive control (inferior frontal junction), a term that includes strategy-changing, attention, and working memory. This activation was seen in response to the cue indicating which type of task would be performed and is therefore believed to indicate to what extent participants were able to overcome the negative emotions associated with math.
What kind of techniques the participants used to do this was not investigated but the finding that the greater the activation was in this network, the lesser the deficits found during calculation supports the idea that experiencing anxiety or discomfort when about to crunch numbers can be compensated for.
These findings indicate that an alternative to extra schooling and homework for students that experience discomfort and anxiety when about to do math would be to develop interventions that emphasizes control over those responses.
Lyons IM, & Beilock SL (2012). When math hurts: math anxiety predicts pain network activation in anticipation of doing math. PloS one, 7 (10) PMID: 23118929
Lyons, I., & Beilock, S. (2011). Mathematics Anxiety: Separating the Math from the Anxiety Cerebral Cortex, 22 (9), 2102-2110 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhr289