Researchers Confirm Math Causes Headaches

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By Vittorio Hernandez | November 7, 2012 10:22 AM EST

The dread of math is a common problem among students the world over. Many students have complained to their teachers and parents that the mathematical problems they need to solve on their exams or seatwork are causing them headaches.

Researchers from the University of Chicago released on Tuesday a study which indicates the student fear and complaint about math have some basis. The researchers scanned the brains of 28 people while being told they would be given math problems.

Of the 28 subjects, 14 were assessed to be especially afraid of math based on their responses to a questionnaire where they were instructed to rate their anxiety to different math-related scenarios such as receiving a math textbook to opening a math or statistics book and seeing a page filled with problems.

The 14 were later told they have to do some computations which resulted in their brains responding in places linked with visceral threat detection and experiences of pain.

"Math can be difficult . . . For some, even the mere prospect of doing math is harrowing. Those with high levels of mathematics anxiety report feelings of tension, apprehension and fear of math," The Australian quoted the paper published in PLoS One journal.

Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the university and a leading expert on math anxiety, described the pain experienced when a person suffers from math anxiety as similar to burning a hand on a hot stove.

However, the researchers pointed out that it was more the anticipation of having to solve math problems and not actually doing math itself that appeared like pain in the brain.

"This means that any observed relation between math anxiety and pain would likely be more dependent upon one's feelings and worries about math . . . than something inherent in the math task itself," the authors explained.

An fMRI machine was used by the researchers to study the brain activities of the volunteers as they did math. An example of the math equation they were asked to verify is (12 x 4) - 19 = 29.

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