By Annie Murphy Paul
In children with math anxiety, seeing numbers on a page stimulates the same part of the brain that would respond if they spotted a slithering snake or a creeping spider—math is that scary. Brain scans of these children also show that when they’re in the grip of math anxiety, activity is reduced in the information-processing and reasoning areas of their brains—exactly the regions that should be working hard to figure out the problems in front of them. These new findings, published this month in the journal Psychological Science, demonstrate that math anxiety is real and can’t simply be wished away. But there are specific exercises that have been shown to reduce students’ nervousness and allow them to focus on their work without the powerful distraction of fear.
In this latest experiment, Christina B. Young, Sarah S. Wu, and Vinod Menon of the Stanford University School of Medicine scanned the brains of 46 second- and third-graders with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine as they solved addition and subtraction problems. Before climbing into the scanner, the children had completed tests of intelligence and working memory, and measures of math anxiety and general anxiety.
In the kids who worried a lot about math, the fMRI scans picked up a striking pattern: Regions of a brain structure called the amygdala, responsible for processing negative emotions, were hyperactive. At the same time, activity in the posterior parietal and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—areas involved in mathematical reasoning—was diminished. The scientists’ analysis of neural networks revealed that the two activity levels were connected: The buzz in the brain’s fear center was interfering with the ability of its problem-solving regions to do their job. The pattern the paper’s authors identified was specific to math, unrelated to general intelligence or to other kinds of anxiety.
Although this study is the first to pinpoint the neural basis of math anxiety in children and demonstrate its impact on brain functioning, other researchers have investigated the phenomenon and devised methods to counter it. Cognitive scientist Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago, for example, has theorized that math anxiety affects students’ performance in the subject by using up mental resources, such as working memory, that could otherwise be deployed in solving math problems. One way to relieve this burden on working memory, Beilock and her colleagues have found, is to spend ten minutes writing about one’s thoughts and feelings about a math exam just before taking it. Students effectively offload their worries onto the page, enabling them to tackle the test with a mind free of rumination and distraction. In the lab, Beilock reports, engaging in this exercise “eliminates poor performance under pressure,” and the method has produced encouraging results in real-life classroom settings as well.
Other approaches that have proven successful at reducing math anxiety and improving performance include having students reaffirm their self-worth by listing important values like relationships with friends and family, and having students think about why they might do well (“I am a student at a high-level university”) rather than poorly (“I am a girl taking a difficult math test”). These interventions are simple but effective: By deliberately shifting their frame of mind, students can make that creepy-crawly feeling of anxiety go away.