Anxious about math? Your brain may tackle simple problems differently | Science News for Students

Anxious about math? Your brain may tackle simple problems differently

Research suggests people without math anxiety may be better at automating arithmetic
Mar 30, 2017 — 1:07 pm EST
math man

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.


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.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

annual     Adjective for something that happens every year. (in botany) A plant that lives only one year, so it usually has a showy flower and produces many seeds.

anxiety     A nervous reaction to events causing excessive uneasiness and apprehension. People with anxiety may even develop panic attacks.

brain scan     A technique to view structures inside the brain, typically with X-rays or a magnetic resonance imaging (or MRI) machine. With MRI technology — especially the type known as functional MRI (or fMRI) — the activity of different brain regions can be viewed during an event, such as viewing pictures, computing sums or listening to music.

circuit     A network of that transmits electrical signals. In the body, nerve cells create circuits that relay electrical signals to the brain. In electronics, wires typically route those signals to activate some mechanical, computational or other function.

cognitive     A term that relates to mental activities, such as thinking, learning, remembering and solving puzzles.

correlation     A mutual relationship or connection between two variables. When there is a positive correlation, an increase in one variable is associated with an increase in the other. (For instance, scientists might correlate an increase in time spent watching TV with an increase in risk of obesity.) Where there is an inverse correlation, an increase in one value is associated with a decrease in the other. (Scientists might correlate an increase in TV watching with a decrease in time spent exercising each week.) A correlation between two variables does not necessarily mean one is causing the other.

functional magnetic resonance imaging     (fMRI) A special type of machine used to study brain activity. It uses a strong magnetic field to monitor blood flow in the brain. Tracking the movement of blood can tell researchers which brain regions are active. (See also, MRI or magnetic resonance imaging)

network     A group of interconnected people or things.

neuroscience     The field of science that deals with the structure or function of the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Researchers in this field are known as neuroscientists.

working memory     The ability to hold something in the mind for a short period of time, such as a mental grocery list or a phone number.


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Meeting: H. Chang et al. Simple arithmetic: Not so simple for highly math anxious individuals. Cognitive Neuroscience Society Annual Meeting, San Francisco, March 25, 2017.