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New research tracks "math anxiety" in the brain

I remember with great clarity my least-favorite part of third grade: the "Mad Minute of Math." These timed math quizzes, pale green sheets of paper covered in columns of ditto-machined sums, filled me with panic. In that panic, how could I possibly remember the answer to 5+7?

So I was particularly excited to write about a new study from a Stanford team on the neurological basis of math anxiety. This study in second- and third-graders is the first in any age group to directly compare brain activity in individuals with low and high levels of math anxiety. As the press release I wrote on the subject explains:

“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,” said Vinod Menon, PhD, the Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who led the research.

... In the children with high math anxiety, the scans showed heightened activity in the amygdala, the brain’s main fear center, and also in a section of the hippocampus, a brain structure that helps form new memories. They also had decreased activity in several brain regions associated with working memory and numerical reasoning. Interestingly, analysis of brain connections showed that, in children with high math anxiety, the increased activity in the fear center was driving the reduced function in numerical information-processing regions of the brain. Further, children with high math anxiety also showed greater connections between the amygdala and emotion-regulating regions of the brain.

A better understanding of how math anxiety affects the brain could help researchers develop more-effective methods for helping kids overcome the problem. Such intervention is important, Menon said, because studies by others have shown that children with math anxiety often go on to avoid math classes and end up with a substandard math education.

As for me, my anxiety about math gradually lessened after third grade. Although I did experience a few moments of graphing-calculator-induced panic in my college calculus courses,  nothing ever again felt quite as bad as having to face those pale green "Mad Minute" sheets.

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