Fear of Math Can Light Up Kids’ Brains

By: Kamal Menghrajani

Some school children respond with fear when facing math problems. (Alan Levine:Flickr)

Some people are afraid of atomic explosions (atomosophobia), Bolsheviks (bolshephobia), nose bleeds (epistaxiophobia), forests (xylophobia), or long words (sesquipedalophobia).

But for many elementary school kids, the phobia is much more common. It’s math. Teachers have known this for a long time, but now scientists are looking inside these kids’ brains in search of clues.

As reported in this month’s Psychological Science, scientists have found that the brains of kids with “math anxiety” light up with fear when they are presented with math problems. This brain response also partially shuts down the part of the brain involved in problem solving and mathematical reasoning.

Stanford Professor Vinod Menon is a neuroscientist and lead author on the study. “The same part of the brain that responds to fearful situations–such as seeing a spider or a snake– also shows a heightened response in children with high math anxiety,” he says. “And that was a surprise to us.”

The study focused on second- and third-graders from around the Bay Area. Their fearful responses seemed to be specific to math problems, as these kids did not show signs of general anxiety. They also weren’t significantly different from their peers in terms of IQ, memory or proficiency in math.

In the study, these kids’ high math anxiety translated into taking longer to solve math problems. But as these kids get older, they may experience serious consequences as a result of their aversion to math.

“It’s now fairly well-documented that in high school, individuals who have math anxiety generally tend to avoid math-related classes. And you can see that if you avoid these classes, you’re not going to get very far in science or engineering or finance,” he said.

Getting more students to enter math-heavy fields has become a priority at schools across the country. At the White House Science Fair last month, President Obama announced that he was seeking $80 million to boost math education in the U.S., with the goal of getting one million more American students to graduate in science, technology, engineering, and math over the next 10 years.

Reaching these goals will mean getting students to embrace math, not fear it. Menon’s group found that the part of the brain that is most activated in math anxiety is associated with learned fear. “How children come to see [math problems] as being particularly anxiety provoking, and what is the context in which that happens, is still a mystery,” he said.

But hope is not lost. Researchers believe that kids who experience this fear could still go on to successful careers in math-heavy fields. But it will depend on getting them more help when they’re young, and their brains still have lots of plasticity. How best to do that is a question without an answer. Menon says research is still needed to determine what types of interventions might work best.

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  • Matt Rollins

    I tutored math and science at a community college, and the fear was pretty easy to see. This fear makes it much harder for students to connect their existing reasoning skills with written math, and would often turn into anger and frustration at the problems.

    It was interesting to see above that the anxiety did not necessarily correlate to ability. I also totally agree that the earlier the intervention the better! It was not fair that community college students might have to take 4 entire years of math in order to transfer to a CSU or UC.