Finally: Medical proof that math makes your head hurt?

Splitting the bill after dinner can be a big headache for some people. Now researchers have an idea why

According to new research "math anxiety" is something that should be treated just like a phobia such as fear of heights.
(Image credit: ThinkStock/Wavebreak Media)

The question: For the math-averse among us — number-crunchers like Nate Silver notwithstanding — a simple equation can cause a major headache. Why do some people find the task of balancing a checkbook or trying to split a bill after dinner to be incredibly daunting?

How it was tested: Researchers from the University of Chicago worked with 14 adults proven to have "math anxiety" based on their responses to an initial series of queries. These questions weren't actual math problems: Instead, researchers presented participants with theoretical scenarios like receiving a math textbook or taking a difficult math class in order to graduate. The volunteers weren't anxious people in general, say researchers, but rather possessed a "heightened sense of anxiety" when presented with math-related situations. For the actual experiment, their brains were hooked up to an fMRI machine, and they were given equations to verify. For example: (12 x 4) - 19 = 29.

The outcome: To the surprise of researchers, it was the anticipation of doing math, not necessarily the math itself, that elicited responses from participants that were similar to, well, being in pain. In particular, just being presented with math problems activated parts of the posterior insula, which is "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." More interestingly: The process of actually doing math didn't cause these same brain areas to register on fMRI.

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What the experts say: "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 study co-author Professor Sian Beilock in a statement. Previous studies have demonstrated that the higher someone's math anxiety, which can start as early as first grade, the stronger the response via brain scan.

The lesson: Anxiety isn't just a proxy for poor math skills, but it can be an indicator for a "real, negative psychological reaction." Educators and officials should therefore consider treating math anxiety like they would other phobias.

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