A new study from Canada and published in the journal PloS One has found that thinking about math can cause pain for some individuals. The study leads, Dr. Ian Lyons and Sian L. Beilock looked at the brain responses of 28 participants. Each participant was monitored for brain activity when they were told they would be completing math problems, and when they were working on the problems.
The results were surprising. When told they would be doing math problems, the brains lit up in areas related to visceral pain. This pain is a deep abdominal discomfort, similar to being punched in the stomach. It can cause vomiting and a general sick feeling. Dr. Lyons explained that, “It turned out that areas [of the brain] that are really important for perceiving pain… think like a stomach ache or a gut punch, these areas were active. But only during the anticipation.”
The pain ended when the participants actually got down to working on the math problems. “We were especially surprised to see it during the anticipation period, and not the actual doing of the math. But the more we thought about it, the more it makes a little bit of sense. Because math is just a bunch of numbers of a page… and really, anxiety is about the psychological interpretation.”
They theorize that the pain response is not caused by the math itself, but from negative experiences related to math. “Was it that they were up at a chalk board and their classmates were making fun of them? Or a teacher scolded them when they were a kid?” Lyons added. “But that being said, what ever that learned response was now seems to elicit this feeling of pain- at least when you tell someone they’re about to do math.” He added that to battle this fear of math, a person should be looking to treat the anxiety first before practicing the math itself. This is especially important in children who avoid doing math because of their anxiety.