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When People Worry About Math, the Brain Feels the Pain

Published: November 1, 2012.
By University of Chicago

"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 Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on math anxiety.

The two report their findings in a paper, "When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math," in the current issue of PlOS One .

The questions gauged one's anxiety when receiving a math textbook, walking to math class or realizing math requirements for graduation. The higher a person's anxiety about math, the more anticipating math activated the posterior insula—a fold of tissue located deep inside the brain just above the ear that is associated with registering direct threats to the body as well as the experience of pain.

This latest study points to the value of seeing math anxiety not just as a proxy for poor math ability, but as an indication there can be a real, negative psychological reaction to the prospect of doing math.

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