CHICAGO — Math problems make more than a few students — and even teachers — sweat, but new brain research is providing insights into the earliest causes of the anxiety so often associated with mathematics.
Experts argue that “math anxiety” can bring about widespread, intergenerational discomfort with the subject, which could lead to anything from fewer students pursuing math and science careers to less public interest in financial markets.
“People are very happy to say they don’t like math,” said Sian L. Beilock, a University of Chicago psychology professor and the author of “Choke,” a 2010 book on brain responses to performance pressure. “No one walks around bragging that they can’t read, but it’s perfectly socially acceptable to say you don’t like math.”
Mathematics anxiety is more than just disliking math, however; someone with math anxiety feels negative emotions when engaging in an activity that requires numerical or math skills. In one forthcoming study by Beilock, simply suggesting to college students that they would be asked to take a math test triggered a stress response in the hypothalamus of students with high math anxiety.
Beilock and other experts at a Learning and the Brain conference held in Chicago earlier this month are searching for the earliest problems in a child’s math career that can grow into lifelong fears and difficulties. The conference, put on by the Needham, Mass.-based Public Information Resources, Inc., brought together several hundred educators and administrators with researchers in educational neuroscience and cognitive science.
Anxiety has become a hot topic in education research, as educators and policymakers become increasingly focused on test performance and more-intensive curricula, and neuroscience has begun to provide a window into how the brain responds to anxiety.
Anxiety can literally cut off the working memory needed to learn and solve problems, according to Dr. Judy Willis, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based neurologist, former middle school teacher and author of the 2010 book “Learning to Love Math.”
When first taking in a problem, a student processes information through the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, which then prioritizes information going to the prefrontal cortex, the part responsible for the brain’s working memory and critical thinking. During stress, there is more activity in the amygdala than the prefrontal cortex; even as minor a stressor as seeing a frowning face before answering a question can decrease a student’s ability to remember and respond accurately.
“When engaged in mathematical problem-solving, highly math-anxious individuals suffer from intrusive thoughts and ruminations,” said Daniel Ansari, the principal investigator for the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario. “This takes up some of their processing and working memory. It’s very much as though individuals with math anxiety use up the brainpower they need for the problem” on worrying.
Moreover, a series of experiments at the Mangels Lab of Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory and Attention at Baruch College at the City University of New York suggests this stress reaction may hit hardest the students who might otherwise be the most enthusiastic about math.
Jennifer A. Mangels, the lab’s director, said she tested college students on math in either neutral situations or in ways designed to invoke anxiety, such as mentioning gender stereotypes about math ability to girls being tested, or telling students that their scores would be used to compare their math ability with others’.
Mangels found, in keeping with other research, that students tested in stressful situations had lower math performance. She also found that stress hit otherwise promising students the hardest.
In nonstressful tests, the students who most identified with math, defined as those who sought out more opportunities to learn within the math program, had the highest performance. While under stress, those same students performed worse than those who didn’t identify with the subject.
“We’re reducing the diagnostic ability of these tests by having students take them in a stressful situation,” Beilock agreed.