IS MATH ANXIETY A THING?

Math anxiety is believed to influence learning and mastery of mathematics at an earlier age. It is characterized by feelings of stress and anxiety in association with mathematical reasoning as well as avoidance of the discipline. Some of the consequences can be far reaching, involving problem-solving difficulties across all age range, and even lifelong difficulties with simple numerical operations such as additions and subtractions.

The subtlety of the disorder makes it almost invisible, which may raise the question whether math anxiety is a thing or not. The current study, however, may be able to answer that question by showing what happens in the brain of someone with math anxiety.

Investigating the neurodevelopmental basis for math anxiety (i.e., how the nervous system processes math-related information as it develops) in children between 7 and 9 years of age, the current authors report hyperactivity and abnormal connectivity in the amygdala in association with math.

The amygdala and math anxiety

The amygdala is a brain structure involved in processing and regulating emotions, and for example one of its functions is to link a memory with a particular emotion. Hence, it is associated with responses related to learned fear. In addition, the connection between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (i.e., a brain region located in the frontal lobe that is implicated in the regulation of negative emotions) is enhanced in high math anxiety children compared to their low math anxiety cohorts, which suggests that their brain has to work harder at regulating negative emotions to allow them to perform well, albeit at a lower level than the non-anxious children.

Furthermore, high math anxiety children display lower connectivity between the amygdala and the posterior parietal cortex (i.e., a brain region located on top of the head that is involved in language, attention and number processing), which indicates reduced efficiency in processing numbers and decreased accuracy in solving math problems.

Those results as a whole indicate that the brain of children with high math anxiety taps limited cognitive resources to tackle math, which results in lower performance overall. It is noteworthy to add that the brain circuits and regions implicated in math anxiety are also associated with generalized anxiety disorders and specific phobias in adults. Thus there is evidence that math anxiety is a thing.

Reference:

Young CB, Wu SS, Menon V. The neurodevelopmental basis of math anxiety. Psychol Sci. 2012 May 1;23(5):492-501. doi: 10.1177/0956797611429134. Epub 2012 Mar 20. PMID: 22434239; PMCID: PMC3462591.


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