Type: Exploratory
Pages: 6 | Words: 1761
Reading Time: 8 Minutes

To understand the essence of math anxiety, one should imagine sitting on a school math class. Then the teacher calls them to the board and makes them fight with incomprehensible equations and fractions. If only this picture inspires them with fear, then they probably had problems with the exact sciences at school. The fear in this case was not the result but the cause. Scientists have proved that incapacity to deal quickly with mathematical problems is not caused by the lack of ability to the exact sciences but by emotional reactions. “My child has bad grades”, “He is a born humanist” – many parents say this about their children. In vain: psychologists of the Chicago Institute proved that it is the fear of mathematical problems that blocks mental abilities of students.

If at school a person was considered a humanitarian, he/she was shaking by solving sums near the board and crying over the homework – then he/she knows that math can cause the pain. Nowadays, it is proven that the pain can be real. As scientists have found, experiences in calculations are comparable to physical suffering, and “F” in mathematics is caused by the fear before it. Failures in solving mathematical problems can be related to a greater extent with the work of motivational centers in the subcortical areas of the brain than to the lack of capacity as such.

Difficulties with mathematics are not always the cause of the lack of ability. The problem is often connected with excessive anxiety that precedes the solution of a mathematical problem. In other words, solving the mathematical problem, a person should think not about it, but “over it”. This is the conclusion of psychologies of the University of Chicago who analyzed the brain activity of a number of students with the fear of mathematics. Psychological studies of Chicago and Northwestern University found that some people working with numbers and formulas are experiencing discomfort that is comparable to physical pain. According to Ian Lyon and Sian Beilock, this is true for people with a high degree of the so-called mathematical anxiety. It should be noted that for that uncertainty, which many people experience at the sight of math problems, psychologists have suggested a single term — math anxiety. Math anxiety is excessive fears in relation to mathematics, various problems and sums, and uncertainty of a person that he/she cannot cope with them. Specialists found that of all the areas of science just mathematical subjects can arouse a real panic in students and even older people.

Anxiety and fear before solving mathematical problems leads to the activation of brain regions that are associated with the experience of physical pain. Researchers have found that in people’s organisms with a high level of math anxiety – a condition manifested by tension and insecurity in their mathematical abilities – the activity of the brain that is responsible for the pain sensitivity increased in proportion to the level of anxiety. In previous studies, scientists have already drawn their attention to the fact that some forms of stress can be accompanied by a sensation of physical pain in response to social problems. However, in this case, the pain occurs in response to the expectation of an unpleasant situation. The authors of the study consider that evolutionary mechanism of neural pain is very improbable, suggesting that math anxiety is an ideal model for studying the mechanisms of pain in response to innocuous stimuli.

Aforementioned scientists of Chicago and Northwestern universities were interested in similar studies that proved that feelings that are similar to physical pain for socially excluded people were proportional to the degree of their fear and depression. Mathematics, according to scientists, also makes people feel a decent level of anxiety. This is a perfect training ground for the study of how the physical safe situations cause the neuronal response that is similar to the real pain. Initial hypothesis was that exactly the thought of the need to do mathematical calculations and not the problem as such is a power unit for fear of the procedure, which, in turn, causes the pain. The scientists asked the participants of the experience to answer a number of questions about how they feel before the upcoming math, dividing them into two groups of 14 people with high (HMAs) and low (LMAs) degree of mathematical anxiety respectively. The criteria to determine its extent are based on the deliberately developing for this purpose in 1972 elementary scale SMARS (Short Math Anxiety Rating-Scale). It should be noted that the very existence of the scale SMARS for decades is already talking about how acute this problem in the world of psychology is.

To test the hypothesis, 28 participants of the experiment received a number of linguistic and mathematical puzzles, during the solutions of which their gyri were exposed to the MRI scan. Before each subsequent series of issues, participants saw the light signal indicating of the complexity of the problem and its belonging (language or mathematics). There were no differences in neural response in both groups (HMAs / LMAs) before easier linguistic and mathematical tasks, whereas during solving more difficult problems people that are less anxious in mathematics showed significantly better results than more anxious people. This is entirely logical: under stress, people tend to show smaller impact in resolving situations that require serious mental activity. Studying the differences in the brain activity in people with opposite poles of anxiety, Lyon pointed out that before solving complex mathematical problems, participants with high levels of anxiety activity in the central lobe of cerebrum showed increased results, and it was much more difficult to solve the problem afterwards. At the same time, less “mathematical anxiety” participants in practice did not show any neural responses and easily coped with the task. A very important fact is that just these areas of the brain are responsible for pain. As for the pupils suffering “mathematical phobia”, the scientists were surprised to find the activity of certain brain areas that are not related to the sciences and logical thinking. These areas were subcortical structures, the caudate nucleus, and some other adjacent cores. The work of these zones is associated with the motivational sphere. They are responsible for the so-called system of reinforcement. Thanks to the activity of these structures, people are happy winning or sad losing, and also can assess the risks and chances of winning. The success of the solving of problems was found in the inverse proportion to the degree of activity of these centers. If the caudate nucleus and subcortical structures of the subjects “were included at full capacity”, the number of correct answers averaged 68 % (that is, nearly a third of the students solved problems incorrectly or were not able at all to solve). If the activity was low, the number of correct decisions increased to 83 %. According to the experimenters, in students’ brains with particularly high levels of anxiety, some motivational brain areas activated before receiving the task. The experimental results showed that when participants with a high level of mathematical anxiety saw the light signal indicating them that a complicated mathematical problem is followed by it, the brain, figuratively, warned them that it was going to hurt. Psychologists call this situation an excessive motivation. If the subjective value of anything is too high for a person, his/her fear of losing it or not handling the situation becomes so great that it prevents of doing even the simplest actions. A psychologist Vladimir Levi gives a good metaphor for this regularity. A person should imagine that he/she needs to go on a fairly wide log, which lies on the ground, and not to stumble. This is simple task for a healthy person with a good coordination. However, when imagining that the log was raised to the height of person’s growth, it is more difficult to deal with the same task: in the situation that a person does fall, he/she risks to hurt himself/herself or break something. Now one should imagine that the log was raised to the height of the tenth floor. It is even scary to imagine that a person has to pass on it. Almost the same happens with the frightened students. Under the fear of a badly written test or fail in an examination, they lose the ability to think intelligently. Interestingly, the activation of motivational and reinforcing areas of the brain does not affect, for example, the ability of the humanist and generally on the quality of any non-mathematical tasks. Emotions are known to have the ability to block the rest of the activities, since they lie at the heart of any motivation.

The scientists received the first evidence indicating neural nature of mathematical anxiety. Previous similar studies focused mostly on social exclusion and argued that it was an isolated condition that caused a person to feel pain. However, the data from the experiment went much further and suggested that the very expectation of the coming of a bad event leads to a neural response that is responsible for pain. U.S. researchers conducted a study showing that the upcoming math problems heighten the sense of mathematical anxiety, thereby increasing the activity in brain regions that are associated with threat detection and visceral sensation of pain that often occurs on its own. It is interesting that such a correlation was not evident during the performance of mathematical equations and problems.

It is believed that the pain of this kind is an essential quality of human nature and is caused by certain evolutionary processes. The scientists, however, consider it unlikely that the “purely evolutionary mechanism provokes a neural response of the brain for the future studies of mathematics, which, in fact, is quite modern cultural phenomenon”. This conclusion may clarify other psychological phenomena, in particular, the nature of phobias.

Not only constant practice can improve success in mathematics. A person should not just suppress emotions. He/she must be able to direct resources to the mental concentration on the task itself. As the stress of waiting, as it was found, affects the efficiency and effectiveness more than the problem itself, it makes sense to explore alternative approaches to the teaching of mathematics at school. Fear of “F” literally paralyzes those students whose brain is quite capable of coping with a mathematic problem. Perhaps one should even provide simpler process of tax returns. Often, the authorities are alarmed by seeing statistics of mathematical illiteracy of the adult population. However, maybe people are not to blame for the fact that they could not concentrate during mathematics classes at school. Maybe they just were afraid of figures.

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