Math hurts

A few weeks ago, there was an entry of the CNN medical blog, The Chart, which talked about a recent psychological study related to math anxiety. In this study, researchers wanted to investigate through the use of MRI which areas of the brain were active while solving math problems, and whether it was different for people with math phobia and people without. In fact, they were more interested in seeing the brain activity in anticipation of the math problem. The study found that the area of the brain that was activated was the same that gets triggered when faced with threat of physical pain.

One of the problems I have with this study is that the findings seem little more to me than common sense. I would have liked to see if the same team of psychologists, led by Sian Beilock, of the University of Chicago, has done other studies relating phobias in general and the threat of physical pain. Could it be that fear and pain are just closely linked, and it has little to do with math in particular? I have no idea, as I am not familiar with this type of research. But the fact that some people suffer from math anxiety is no secret. That it is socially acceptable to be so is no secret either. But then again, some people have a phobia of cockroaches, and that is socially acceptable too, and as far as I can tell a cockroach is not a reasonable thing to be afraid of either. Of course, in the case of intellectual phobias, this is all probably tied to self-image and social pressure (for too long people who “get math” quickly have been considered to be smarter than anyone else, an incorrect assumption in my opinion).

And this gets me to my next issue, which is more related to my ignorance of neuroscience than anything. How is knowing which area of the brain gets triggered helpful in reducing math anxiety in the classroom? Can anyone explain this to me? Maybe this study was done just to see whether math anxiety is a “true” anxiety, i.e. “lives” in the part of the brain where the most basic fears live, like that of physical pain. In that case, I find the result very interesting, as we now know it is something deeply engrained that we might be fighting against in the classroom. But the blog (and this may be a problem of the interpretation of the study, not the study itself) seems to imply that the end goal of this is to solve the problem of math anxiety. This, I don’t quite believe.

The part that I found most interesting was actually that a previous study by Beilock investigated how writing about anxieties before an exam actually reduced the students’ anxieties and improved their test performance. This seems to me to be much more useful in the long run.

Of course, listen to me, a pure mathematician, complaining about a study because I don’t think it’s all that useful. Oh, the irony. But maybe I misunderstood the point of the study or the article. I am happy to hear your interpretation in the comments section below. So what do you think dear readers? Did you find these to be interesting or unexpected results? Do you disagree with my interpretation? Do you know more about neuroscience and can explain why this sort of thing might be useful after all? Please share your thoughts!

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