How You Can Overcome Math Anxiety

Math test today! Did you just get a little nervous? Math anxiety doesn't just cause sweaty palms and fidgeting, it also has a serious impact on students' academic performance. Yet new research on how the brain behaves when faced with math problems suggests that such anxiety can be overcome.

By Jeff Calareso


How the Brain Reacts

As reported recently on the academic website ScienceDaily, a new study from the University of Chicago has explored the relationship between math anxiety and the brain. The study, which was conducted by Sian Beilock and Ian Lyons and funded by the National Science Foundation, involved analyzing brain activity while university students were given a mixture of spelling and math problems. Each problem was preceded by a symbol that indicated what type of question the student would encounter. This enabled researchers to use functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor how brains react to the looming threat of math.

Students with a high amount of math anxiety were found to have a low level of activity in the frontal and parietal regions of the brain. Conversely, students with no significant math anxiety had a great deal of activity in these regions. Furthermore, it was discovered that by increasing this activity for anxious students, performance could be improved. Notably, this relationship between math problems and brain activity didn't occur with spelling problems.

Overcoming Math Anxiety

If you suffer from math anxiety, simply knowing that you could benefit from stimulating the frontal and parietal lobes of your brain may not provide immediate relief. Yet it's important to recognize that your anxiety can be overcome. The key is to convince yourself that you can accomplish the task at hand. Take a deep breath and concentrate less on your apprehension about math and more on what needs to be done.

The study also found that students with math anxiety don't necessarily benefit from additional training in the subject. For many students, poor performance on math tests is less about a content deficiency and more about the anxiety itself. That anxiety begins in anticipation of the task; this makes it critical to focus your mind early. Don't wait until the test is in front of you. Begin focusing as you head to class.

The University of Chicago researchers discovered that students with math anxiety could effectively generate activity in the frontal and parietal lobes to kick-start a reaction that moved throughout the brain. Interestingly, the activity didn't correspond to areas of the brain linked with performing numerical calculations. Instead, it occurred in subcortical structures, which are linked to motivation and balancing risks and rewards with the requirements of the task a person is facing. In other words, overcoming your anxiety and performing better in math may simply be a matter of motivating your brain to believe that it's possible.

While math may make you nervous, it's possible that humans innately understand mathematical concepts.

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