Kids with Math Anxiety Show Different Brain Functions

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Math Phobia

Kids who have math anxiety have altered brain functions, according to a recent study. Brain activity, when faced with equations and formulas from math, decreased with the panic feeling.

A study from the Standford University School of Medicine was published this week in Psychological Science, reported a brain scan was done on fifty children in the second and third grade. Researchers assessed the children for math anxiety with a modified version of a standardized questionnaire for adults, and also received standard intelligence and cognitive tests. They found children with a higher level of math anxiety had a harder time solving math problems and were less accurate compared to those children with lower math anxiety.

Vinod Menon, a co-author and professor of child psychiatry, neurology and neuroscience at Stanford said, “Children who said they had math anxiety had greater responses in the areas of the brain implicated in processing negative emotions like fear, particularly the amygdala. We also saw reduced activity in areas normally associated with mathematical problem solving.”

Children with high math anxiety were accompanied by decreased activity in several brain regions associated with working memory and numerical reasoning. Analysis of brain connections showed that, in children with high math anxiety, the increased activity in the fear center influenced a reduced function in numerical information-processing regions of the brain.

While math anxiety has been known about for a long time, it’s never been studied with the effect it has on students and math skills. Vinod Menon, PhD said, “It’s remarkable that, although the phenomena was first identified over 50 years back, nobody had bothered to ask how math anxiety manifests itself in terms of neural activity. 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.”

Being able to identify the math anxiety might help develop strategies in the treatment for the problem with anxiety or phobia. Victor Carrion, MD, a pediatric psychiatrist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital; who was not involved in Menon’s research, but is also an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford said, “The results are a significant step toward our understanding of brain function during math anxiety and will influence development of new academic interventions.”

Menon’s lab is now looking for children ages 7 to 12 in the San Francisco Bay Area for several brain studies, including studies of math anxiety, math cognition and memory formation. The researchers are especially seeking second and third graders who have difficulty with math for a study. A month of free math tutoring will be provided. They are also seeking children with high-functioning autism as well as typically developing children to serve as control subjects for ongoing studies of math, language and social abilities.

Studies involve cognitive assessments and MRI scans. Eligible children will receive pictures of their brain and $50-200 for participation. An MRI scan is a safe, non-invasive procedure that does not use radiation or any injections.

21 COMMENTS

  1. No question I had math anxiety in my youth, and while its much better today (in my 40s), I still have slower processing of math compared to others. The best analogy that I can use is to learning a second language. Some people become so fluent in a second language that they can alternate effortlessly back and forth between languages. While others who spend a comparable amount of time and effort learning a second language will never become this fluent, describing it as always requiring mental effort to ‘switch’ their brain over to the other language, even though they can speak and understand it well. Another analogy I could use is to music, being able to effortlessly transpose the same song (chords and notes) played in different keys. I’ve been playing guitar for years. I know how to transpose or modulate chords for different keys but I have to think about it a lot. If someone were to say “Let’s play this song in alternate C instead of the original F”, I would have to stop and think about how it would change every chord or note in the song. I would need a couple practice runs, maybe more. Whereas a friend of mine could just do this almost on-the-fly without having to think too much about it (we’ve been playing about the same number of years). The ‘anxiety’ comes when you are struggling to play the song in a different key. I would end-up being like “Ummm…can I practice it this way for an hour or so first?” And it never seems to get any easier.

  2. I strongly doubt that there is a natural evolved anxiety towards math specifically. I would think that it would be based on other things, such as familiarity with abstaract rules combined with social pressures from teachers or parents. I wonder if people with so called ‘Math anxiety’ would show similar symptoms if faced with other tasks concerning unfamiliar abstract rules with similar amounts of pressures. Math can take a while to get comfortable with sometimes.

  3. Actually, this extends out even futher.

    There was a study not long ago that basically stated that people who were made to feel stupid or lesser, performed worse at the tasks than they would ordinarily.

    -So it’s not really their brains after all. To borrow a phrase, “The only thing they have to fear is fear itself.” +Besides, according to Malcolm Gladwell, as long as you have an IQ of 120+, you can do any job.

    I wonder what the evolutionary function of Anxiety was supposed to be originally?

    -Only thing I can think off-hand is “Freeze and the enemy can’t see you” 😀

  4. You know, it’s easy to say, “Oh, any idiot could have predicted this result.” But some folk should read a little deeper before passing judgement.

    This study wasn’t trying to prove that math anxiety exists; we’ve known that for a long time. No, it was trying to find out if the anxiety correlates with dysfunction, and it does. The anxiety was accompanied by reduced activity in the parts of the brain responsible for mathematical problem solving. Interesting!

    And, to the person who feels that those with math anxiety should be cleaning toilets…you’re not very nice…and you’re ignorant. Lots of very, very successful people have math anxiety. It doesn’t mean they can’t do math; it means they learn it differently than others who don’t have the anxiety.

    I have a daughter who’s a 4.0 honor student about to graduate from community college–and she just turned 17. She panics over math, yet she’s got a genius-level IQ. I was the same way when I was her age, but I was a physics major in college. Neither of us will be “scrubbing toilets for a living”–not that there’s anything dishonorable about such honest work.

    You know, not all people who scrub toilets are idiots…and not all physicists are geniuses. And one’s occupation has nothing to do with the sort of person one turns out to be, in any case. At least my daughter can learn math. Some people will always be ignorant jerks.

  5. The “No Child Left Behind” Bill has left so many children behind. Teachers teach for state testing and not your everyday math. If you don’t get what the Teacher is teaching, “to bad”, they are moving on anyway. It’s up to the parent to teach how to make change, simple adding, subtracting and multiplying isn’t taught anymore. So, yes, as a Jr. High Parent kids do have math anxiety. It started about 3rd grade when they have to start taking state tests. It has hit home in our City…Now, the Teachers are having to take the state tests to see if they could even pass. GET RID OF STATE TESTING! Give these kids a real, what they will use, everyday lesson…start at 1+1!

  6. Did they stop to consider that the kids might have math anxiety because they’re just not any good at it? Not everyone has the same capacity to learn. I have a functional use of English grammar, but test me on parts of speech and punctuation and whatnot, and I’d be anxious too. It’s the situation, not the subject.

  7. I’m surprised that the term “dyscalculia” was not mentioned. A learning disorder similar to dyslexia, only with numbers. I know a young man who has struggled with math since day one — an educational diagnostician diagnosed him at age 14 (finally). He was also diag with auditory memory disorder. You can name 6 items and ask him to repeat them right away. If he is lucky, he might remember 3 in the correct order. No big deal? Try going to your job and your boss rattles off what your new responsibilities will be — all 10 of them. You can only remember 2 and they’re out of order. Look it up on Wikipedia or just google the term. Inform yourself. It carries over into adulthood unless you are one of the fortunate few to find a teacher who specializes in teaching skills to help.

    Whoever thinks this is a joke, I hope a child in your family never suffers from this disorder. Don’t think you’re immune — evidence proves otherwise.

  8. Scientists,(usually Ph.Ds) have shown for the first time how brain function differs in people who have math anxiety from those who don’t. KEYWORD here is shown.

    A better understanding of the problem usually leads to a better way of addressing it.
    Glad to see the US still allows scientific research.

  9. It takes a phd to “discover” this? Ask some poor kid in the 4th who can’t learn how to divide, but who is the best reader/musician/speller/communicator/wittiest/friendly/socially gifted and “seemingly” very bright kid why he can’t learn. He may be smart enough to tell you what you can’t observe…apparently brains are “not” the same. Some peeps have the math designed brain and some not.

  10. The problem is the educational system and the way math is taught. That is the big problem, and people keep themselves busy distracting themselves with other things, rather than trying to change the way kids learn math.

    Anxiety is normal and expected- especially given the sorry way math is being taught. No major insights here.

    • You are correct. There are several math programs for such children, with innovative ways of teaching math, they’ve been available for several years. However, it will take them another 20 years of study before they recognize and utilize these programs mainstream.

    • To any young kid reading this comment, do not take it to heart. I am an adult and i am fairly certain I had math anxiety when I was younger & stil have it today. However, I am a professional in a highly respected and well regarded technical field. I have been successful in this field for over a decade. It is frustrating not being able to do the quick, off-of-the-top calculations. But that does not mean you will scrub toilets or sweep floors. Not true at all.

    • Seriously asdf. I had horrible math anxiety and had to study my rear off to get a B in college algebra, but graduated near the top of my class in an extremely difficult nursing school. Did we need math? Yes. We have to do drug calculations. It doesn’t require outrageous math skills,but you’d better be accurate. Also, if you didn’t know, nurses make a pretty good living.

    • ASDF? What are those, homekeys for typing? The problem with children who have math anxiety stem partly from inadequate teaching, and partly from not giving the child the reasons for learning math -with some inspiration to become good at it. Children should learn math procedure in school and do the homework at home. It also helps if the parents are proficient in mathematics should odd questions arise.

      Questions like: Has anybody seen the movie “The Last Supper?”

  11. Tops in everything else but math. It’s like a fog or shroud covers you followed by feelings of dread. This has been all of my life and I’m 60 now. Thank the Lord for Calulators and Excel.

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