Math Anxiety and the Brain
A recent brain imaging study
conducted by Christina B. Young, Sarah S. Wu, and Vinod Menon at Stanford University succeeded in identifying “the neural correlates of math anxiety for the first time.” In other words, the study shows how brain function differs in people who have math anxiety from those who don’t have math anxiety. Researchers discovered increased activity in the amygdala (the brain region linked with emotional responses) when children with math anxiety worked on math problems. At the same time, researchers noted decreased activity in regions of the prefrontal cortex (a brain region linked with problem-solving).
What does all of this brain talk actually mean? Basically, math anxiety leads to elevated activity in the “fear” brain region, which disrupts the brain’s ability to solve problems. In an online memo, the study’s lead researcher, Vinod Menon, explains, “The same part of the brain that responds to fearful situations, such as seeing a spider or snake, also shows a heightened response in children with high math anxiety.”
The study included 7- to 9-year-old children with varying levels of math anxiety. However, the students all had similar math and reading abilities, IQ levels, working memory, and levels of general anxiety. Therefore, the research shows that math anxiety-response exists independently of math skill and can affect math performance. Researchers conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans while the children worked on addition and subtraction problems.
The researchers believe that this neurodevelopmental research on math anxiety has “significant implications for its early identification and treatment,” including the development of successful academic interventions and treatments similar to those used for other phobias and generalized anxiety. According to Menon, this research study “validates” math anxiety: “You cannot just wish it away as something that’s unreal.”