The Painful Truth of Math Tests

For many actuaries, an aptitude for mathematics came naturally and it is a passion they have pursued into their chosen career. But a scientific study has discovered that for as many as one in five people, just thinking about a math test has the same effect on the brain as burning their hand on a stove.

Scientists monitored students as they prepared for various mathematical tasks, and saw that the region of the brain that became active was the same area associated with visceral pain, the kind suffered by somebody who had burnt themselves.

However, this effect was not observed during the actual performance of a math task, only in the preparation stage, which suggests that only the anticipation of math is painful, not math itself.

The study volunteers were tested in an fMRI machine, which allowed researchers to examine brain activity as they did math. Volunteers were given equations to verify—for example, the validity of (12 x 4) – 19 = 29. While in the scanner, subjects also completed word puzzles, such as being shown a series of letters (e.g., yrestym) and determining if reversing the order of the letters would produce a correctly-spelled English word.

The fMRI scans showed that the anticipation of math caused a response in the brain similar to physical pain. The higher a person’s anxiety about math, the more anticipating math activated the posterior insula, a fold of tissue located deep inside the brain just above the ear that is associated with registering direct threats to the body as well as the experience of pain.

The findings by Dr. Ian Lyons—a post-doctoral fellow from the Department of Psychology at Western University in London, Ontario—and Sian Beilock—professor of psychology at the University of Chicago—are reported in the paper "When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math" in the journal PlOS One.

They believe the study indicates there can be a real, negative psychological reaction to the prospect of doing math, a reaction that needs to be addressed like any other phobia. Rather than simply piling on math homework for students who are anxious about math, they said, students need active help to become more comfortable with the subject.

Otherwise, they warned, the pain suffered by those with high levels of math anxiety would lead them to avoid math-related situations or even entire math-related career paths.