Anxiety Makes Brain Poor at Math for Some Children

A study from the Stanford University School of Medicine is published this week in Psychological Science showing that children who experience difficulty with math exhibit an altered brain function from anxiety.

When it comes to equations and formulas, all you have to fear is fear itself it seems, with second and third grade students showing brain activity associated with panicky or frightened feelings, decreasing activity in the part of the brain that handles math.

It’s certainly an interesting theory and if put into action, could provide a means of counseling children that have problems with math by way of improving their abilities.

As Vinod Menon, PhD, the Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who led the research confirms:

“The same part of the brain that responds to fearful situations, such as seeing a spider or snake, also shows a heightened response in children with high math anxiety.”

Menon and his team used functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans on nearly 50 students with low and high math anxiety. The children were also assessed for math anxiety with a modified version of a standardized questionnaire for adults, and also received standard intelligence and cognitive tests.

As Menon continues, math anxiety has been known about for a long time, but has never really been studied in terms of its effect on students, and especially younger ones, when maths skills are built:

Menon 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.”

Essentially what he is saying is that his team’s observations show that math anxiety is neurobiologically similar to other kinds of anxiety or phobias. In theory, the process may work for many other issues that children and even adults have difficulty dealing with.

Menon says that’s its also possible for someone who is considered good at maths to have a bad day and feel the anxiety that blocks his or her skills.

Victor Carrion, MD, a pediatric psychiatrist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and an expert on the effects of anxiety in children. Carrion, who was not involved in Menon’s research, 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,”

The two groups of good math and bad math / anxious students showed differences in performance: Children with high math anxiety were less accurate and significantly slower at solving math problems than children with low math anxiety. These results indicate that math anxiety, basically math-specific fear, jams the brain’s information-processing capacity along with the ability to reason through a math problem. Perhaps the process of being fearful, by way of the animal type survival mechanism it originates from, has evolved the brain to be spontaneous and intuitive rather than logical and mathematical in frightening situations.

Menon is excited about the future of his research and thinks that in addition to examining possible treatments and doing further research into the trajectory of math anxiety from early childhood throughout school, future research could provide insight into how the brain’s information-processing capacity is affected by performance anxiety in general.


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