Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Some lucky people have a proclivity for number crunching and difficult equations, but for many of us the idea of performing complex calculations is more horrifying than a Friday the 13th movie marathon.
And, like Jason Voorhees´ two-foot machete plunging into his victim´s abdomen – the personal anxiety surrounding an impending math exam can actually cause people to feel physical pain, according to new research from the University of Chicago.
In a report on the research published in the open access journal PLOS ONE, two University of Chicago scientists used brain scans to detect activity in the regions of the minds of people who have high math-related anxiety and found that these areas are the same ones that are active during instances of bodily harm.
“For someone who has math anxiety, the anticipation of doing math prompts a similar brain reaction as when they experience pain–say, burning one’s hand on a hot stove,” said co-author Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.
The researchers said they were surprised to see that it was the anxiety that caused these pain-related regions in the mind to flare up and not actually doing the math itself.
“The brain activation does not happen during math performance, suggesting that it is not the math itself that hurts; rather the anticipation of math is painful,” said the study´s other author Ian Lyons, currently a postdoctoral scholar at Western University in Ontario, Canada.
In the study, the team found 14 adult volunteers who were shown to have high levels of math-related anxiety based on their responses to a series of questions about the subject. The researchers also performed additional tests to see if these individuals were anxious in general.
The volunteers were then asked to take a math test while in an fMRI machine, which allowed researchers to examine and record their brain activity. While still in the brain scanner, subjects were also given short word puzzles involving a series of letters, like “yretsym”, that may or may not be a word if the letters were reversed.
The fMRI scans taken during the study showed that the mere expectation of math problems caused a reaction in the brain similar to one found during physical pain. The more anxiety a person had about math, the more anticipating having to perform it activated the posterior insula–a fold of brain tissue located deep inside the brain that registers both threats to the body and the experience of pain.
The work by Lyons and Beilock is groundbreaking because previous studies have shown that highly math anxious people tend to avoid math-related situations and career paths, but their study indicates that attitude is driven by an actual sense of pain.
The researchers added that their study could be useful in treating math-related anxiety, which they feel is different from other phobias. For example, previous work by Beilock’s has shown that writing about math-related anxieties prior to a test can diminish that person’s worries and lead to an improved performance.