Study: Math Anxiety Changes Brain Function in Kids

By Julie Rasicot — March 23, 2012 1 min read
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Those of us who aren’t that confident when it comes to math know well that feeling of anxiety when faced with a problem requiring complex calculations.

That anxiety, it turns out, is more than just a case of jitters. A new study by a team of scientists at Stanford University’s School of Medicineshows that the brain function of young elementary school kids who suffer from math anxiety differs from those who don’t, according to a report on the university’s website.

The study led by Vinod Menon, a Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, was published online this week in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Menon and his team conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans on 46 2nd- and 3rd-grade students with low and high math anxiety as they worked on addition and subtraction problems. The kids were subjected to other tests to assess their math anxiety and also standard intelligence and cognitive tests.

The scientists found that those students “who feel panicky about doing math had increased activity in brain regions associated with fear, which caused decreased activity in parts of the brain involved in problem-solving,” according to the website.

Menon’s team says it accomplished its goal of finding biological evidence of math anxiety, which is usually viewed through the lenses of behavior. The results could lead to new strategies and treatments for math anxiety, similar to those for other phobias.

“You cannot just wish it away as something that’s unreal. Our findings validate math anxiety as a genuine type of stimulus- and situation-specific anxiety,” Menon said on the website.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.