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Brain Imaging Provides Clues on Math Anxiety

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 25, 2011 1 min read
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It’s no secret that an announcement of a math pop quiz can send some students into a cold sweat, but a new brain-imaging study suggests that the way they deal with that first rush of anxiety can be critical to their actual math performance.

The study, published last week in the journal Cerebral Cortex, continues work on highly math-anxious people being conducted by Sian L. Beilock, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, and doctoral candidate Ian M. Lyons.

For the latest study, the researchers analyzed 32 college students, ages 18 to 25, identified as high or low in math anxiety. The students were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging—a brain-imaging technology that measures blood flow to areas of the brain—while they performed a series of equally difficult math and spelling tasks. As expected, the highly math-anxious students performed less accurately on math than on spelling and less accurately in math than less anxious students did.

But the story doesn’t end there. Students were shown a symbol before each question, telling them whether the item would be math- or spelling-related. So the brain scan was able to distinguish a student’s anxiety about the upcoming question—and response to that anxiety—separately from what the student did while actually answering the problem.

The highly math-anxious students who performed well anyway showed high activity in the frontal and parietal regions of the brain when signaled that a math problem was coming up. Those areas of the brain are associated with cognitive control, focus, and regulation of negative emotions—not number calculations. Students who activated those parts of the brain got 83 percent of the problems correct, nearly as many as students with low math anxiety. Highly anxious students whose brains did not register activity in those areas got 68 percent of the math questions correct.

The bottom line was that students’ performance had less to do with how afraid they were of the coming math problem—as measured by activity in the amygdala, the brain’s fear center—and more to do with how they responded to that fear. The researchers said their findings suggest that interventions can be developed to help math-anxious students control their emotions when faced with that pop quiz.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as Brain Imaging Provides Clues on Math Anxiety

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