Anxious about math? Your brain may tackle simple problems differently

Research suggests people without math anxiety may be better at automating arithmetic

People anxious about doing math use certain brain networks differently when doing arithmetic. That suggests they might use different problem-solving strategies than people who aren’t anxious about math.

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SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Some people get jittery when faced with simple math problems. And they may rely more heavily on certain brain circuits than do people who do not experience such math anxiety. That’s the finding of a new study. Using a different mental approach might help explain why people with math anxiety struggle more with complex problems.

To figure out what was going on, researchers placed adults in a brain-scanning device. Called a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, it measures blood flow in the brain. This lets researchers see which brain regions are active at a particular point in time. For the new study, the study recruited people with and without math anxiety. All of the adults were asked to answer whether simple math problems — such as 9+2=11— were correct or not. Both groups had similar response times. Each group also was equally accurate. The brain scans, however, turned up some differences.

In people who weren’t anxious about math, there was less activity in one brain region. It is called the frontoparietal (FRUN-tow-pah-RY-eh-tul) attention network. It is involved in working memory and the solving of problems. Less activity here was linked to performing better. But not in math-anxious people. Those adults showed no link between performance and the level of activity in this network.

People who relied on this circuit less were probably getting ahead by automating simple math, said Hyesang Chang. She’s a cognitive neuroscientist who works at the University of Chicago in Illinois. She reported her team’s findings March 25 here at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society.

People who get anxious over math showed more varied brain activity overall. That led Chang to speculate that these people might be tackling math in a different way. Their brains might be using a variety of approaches — and in ways that use more brain resources. This scattershot approach works fine for simple math, she said. But the brains of those with math anxiety might get maxed out when the math is more challenging.

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