Afraid to Do the Math?

Study suggests it's negative emotions, not lack of skill, that cause some to struggle

THURSDAY, Oct. 20 (HealthDay News) -- The key to easing math anxiety may be less about improving calculation skills and more about controlling negative emotions that make it difficult to focus on doing the work, new research suggests.

The study found that activation of brain areas involved in attention and emotion may help students with math anxiety conquer their fears and succeed in math.

Researchers from University of Chicago used functional MRI to scan the brains of math-anxious university students and those without math anxiety while they performed difficult problems.

The scans showed differences in the activation of the math-anxious students' frontal and parietal lobes, which are involved with regulating negative emotions and concentration.

Specifically, greater activation of the regions was associated with better performance on the math tests. For example, math-anxious students who showed little activation in these regions got only 68 percent of math problems correct. Math-anxious students who showed stronger activation got 83 percent correct, almost the same as students who didn't have math anxiety, who got 88 percent correct.

The findings suggest that students with math anxiety may benefit from being taught to control their emotions prior to doing math, the researchers said.

"Classroom practices that help students focus their attention and engage in the math task at hand may help eliminate the poor performance brought on by math anxiety," Sian Beilock, an associate professor of psychology and an expert on mathematics anxiety, said in a university news release.

The study appears Oct. 20 in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

"Essentially, overcoming math anxiety appears to be less about what you know and more about convincing yourself to just buckle down and get to it," Beilock added.

For students who were not anxious about math, there was no relationship between activation in brain areas important for focusing attention, controlling emotion and math performance. Nor did researchers find a similar brain activity patterns when math-anxious students were asked to take a spelling test.

More information

Texas State University has more about math anxiety.

Robert Preidt SOURCE: University of Chicago, news release, Oct. 20, 2011

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