Reason why math anxiety is so debilitating, study explains

March 25th, 2012 by | Permalink

A Stanford University School of Medicine study reveals children suffering from math anxiety have altered brain function, decreasing their ability to solve equations.

Research leader Vinod Menon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, as reported by Medical News Today, says, ”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.


“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.”

Two groups of students were tested in the study; one group has poor math skills and anxiety, the other group had good math skills. Using brain scan technology, Standford researchers found altered patterns of activity in the brains of the children who performed poorly. The fear of the math problem itself was found to inhibit the pathways associated with logical thinking and reasoning. The study concluded that in fearful situations, the brain abandons logic and forethought and enters survival mode, requiring spontaneous action and intuitive responses.

The study revealed anxiety’s role in poor performance but offered no solution. Menon and his associates are hopeful that further investigation into the effects of anxiety on the brain will provide a better understanding–and eventual path of recourse–for the common condition.

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