Research confirms math really can make your brain hurt

Allow me to introduce you all to one of the mathematical equations I dealt with in atmospheric science class. People of the world... this is the Omega Equation*:

Omega Equation... say hello to the people of the world...

Now, people of the world, did looking at that equation suddenly cause you anxiety? Did you feel pain? I remember it giving me quite a few headaches.

Well, a team of researchers at the University of Chicago have found that some people feel so much anxiety about math that it can trigger a threat response or cause them to feel real physical pain!

"For someone who has math anxiety, the anticipation of doing math prompts a similar brain reaction as when they experience pain—say, burning one's hand on a hot stove," said study co-author Professor Sian Beilock, a leading expert on math anxiety at the University of Chicago, according to UChicagoNews.

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However, it turns out that it's not the math itself that is causing the pain, though.

"The brain activation does not happen during math performance, suggesting that it is not the math itself that hurts; rather the anticipation of math is painful," added Ian Lyons, who just completed his PhD in Psychology at the University of Chicago, and is now at the University of Western Ontario.

To conduct their study, Lyons and Beilock gathered two groups of participants, 14 with high-math-anxiety and 14 with low-math-anxiety, and ran them through a series of word and math tasks of varying difficulty. The participants' brain activity was monitored with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine while they answered the questions, and the brains of those with high-math-anxiety showed a response when anticipating math questions that is similar to what is seen in threat detection and when experiencing pain.

Furthermore, the higher someone's anxiety is about math, the stronger the response is.

In their previous work, Lyons and Beilock had found that people with high-math-anxiety suffer a change in their brain function when anticipating math, and Beilock's research has shown that math anxiety can start as early as the first grade, and can be transmitted from female elementary school teachers to their female students.

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Their results are published in a paper titled When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math, in the latest issue of PLOS One.

*The Omega Equation is simple in thought, because it simply describes the vertical motion of air, which can hint to weather forecasters where they will see clouds and precipitation, but as you can see, it is far from simple in practice.