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    This Is Your Brain on Math

    Written by

    Adam Clark Estes

    You remember that feeling, walking into your high school algebra class where lights are too bright and the air always smells of wet carpet. When you sit down on the slick plastic chair, your shoulders drop, as if you’ve just been given a horrible gift. Out come the worksheets, and your head starts to split. Math hurts. To be more specific, the brain’s reaction to math is remarkably similar to its reaction to physical pain. We smell some homework excuses coming on.

    A new study by researchers at the University of Chicago has found that people who get anxious about math experience a neurological reaction similar to experiencing physical pain when they solve math problems. The experiment was remarkably simple. They took a group of people, 14 of whom admitted to math anxiety and 14 of whom were not afraid, and made them do a bunch of math problems and took pictures of their brains with an MRI machine along the way. This wasn’t just about the act of doing math but also activities related to math.

    The researchers also watched to see how the subjects reacted to receiving a math book and walking to math class. Their findings were pretty straightforward. “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 Beck, a professor at the University of Chicago that just published a paper on the research in PloS One.

    In a way, a better emotion to correlate with the anxiety of doing a math problem is simply dread. The reaction wasn’t sparked by doing the math problems as much as it was by anticipating doing them. Key to this discovery was a step in the experiment that involved showing the subject either a yellow or a blue circle just before being given a new problem to indicate a math problem or a word problem, respectively. "This means that any observed relation between math anxiety and pain would likely be more dependent upon one’s feelings and worries about math (i.e., their psychological interpretation or anticipation of the event) than something inherent in the math task itself,” wrote Beilock and and her co-author Ian Lyons in the paper.

    Don’t worry. It’s natural to feel pain or dread when dark times lie ahead. Similar studies shows that this is how our brains react when we deal with things like social rejection. It’s evolutionary, most likely. The jury’s still out on how math factors into evolution, though.