Photograph by Justin Guariglia, National Geographic
Published November 8, 2012
Does the thought of 1+1=ouch?
If you hate math, it might—literally. According to a new study, the mere prospect of a math problem causes pain centers to light up in number-phobic brains.
Researchers at the University of Chicago measured the neural activity of 28 adults—14 who'd been identified with high math anxiety and 14 with low math anxiety. Each subject was given a series of word and math questions (some of which are below) while his or her brain was scanned.
Result: When those in the high-anxiety group saw a math task was coming, their dorso-posterior insulas and mid-cingulate cortexes—the parts of the brain that perceive pain and bodily threats—reacted as if the subject's hand had been burned on a hot stove. Those in the low-anxiety group showed no such response.
(Related: "Electric Jolt to Brain Boosts Math Skills.")
What's more, said study co-author Ian Lyons, "the anxiety occurred only during anticipation. When they actually did the math problems, they didn't seem to experience pain. That suggests it's not the math itself that hurts; it's the thought of it that's painful."
Previous studies have shown that psychologically stressful events—like the end of a romantic relationship—can cause physical discomfort. This study, published last week by Lyons and co-author Sian Beilock in the journal PLOS ONE, may be the first to show that anticipation alone can register in the brain as pain. (See brain pictures.)
"It's purely a psychological interpretation," Lyons said. "Math is just numbers on a page—there's no way that they can actually hurt you."
Still, he says, "People who have high math anxiety typically do badly at math, on everything from SAT scores to laboratory tasks. And they tend to avoid math-related career paths."
Could some of us have evolved that way?
"We don't think so," Lyons said. "Math is a relatively recent cultural invention—it's just a few thousand years old. So this response seems to be driven by a person's direct experiences. But if those experiences have been bad, the person interprets the notion of math as being threatening, and in this case, even painful."
(Related: "Monkeys Can Subtract, Study Finds.")
Lyons thinks his team's findings might apply to things beyond math. "We would not at all be surprised to see this generalized to other phobias—fear of heights, for instance—or other types or testing anxiety."
Can anything quell a math hater's brain pain?
"The initial step is to get over the anxiety," Lyons said. And this is one case where practice doesn't make perfect: "If you're math-anxious, just doing piles of math homework isn't a good idea. But finding a way to be more comfortable with the idea of math is."
Does fear of math hurt your head?
Take this quiz and see. (Note: In the actual experiment, problems were presented one at a time. Each one had to be solved in five seconds. And participants couldn't use scratch paper—they had to solve everything in their heads.)
1) Does 8×9-16=56?
2) Does 7×8-19=37?
3) Does 5×9-16=27?
4) Does 8×5-19=23?
5) Does 6×7-17=27?
6) Does 9×4-17=19?
Scroll for answers.
Explore With Nat Geo
Anders Angerbjörn learns little foxes have big attitudes.
Special Ad Section
Shop book & DVD gifts for all ages. Plus, save on maps featuring award-winning cartography. Limited time only.