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.