Math anxiety is a real thing, a new brain imaging study by Stanford researchers has confirmed.
In a study in the journal Psychological Science, researchers found that there is increased activity in the brain region linked with fear in the brains of second and third graders with math anxiety. Because of the increased activity in the fear brain region, there was decreased activity in their brain regions linked with problem-solving.
The study included 46 students who had both low and high math anxiety -- meaning, they felt stress and anxiety when doing math problems. The students all had similar IQ levels, working memory, math and reading abilities and levels of general anxiety. The researchers had them fill out a questionnaire to analyze their level of math anxiety.
Then, the students did addition and subtraction math problems while the researchers conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans.
The researchers found that for the kids with math anxiety, the amygdala (which is linked with fear) and a part of the hippocampus (which plays a part in forming memories) had increased activity. Meanwhile, brain regions associated with working memory and number reasoning had decreased activity.
"The same part of the brain that responds to fearful situations, such as seeing a spider or snake, also shows a heightened response in children with high math anxiety," study researcher Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, said in a statement.
Outside of the brain scans, researchers also found that the kids with math anxiety worked more slowly and less accurately on the math problems, compared with kids without math anxiety.
"Our study identified the neural correlates of math anxiety for the first time, and our findings have significant implications for its early identification and treatment," the researchers wrote in the study.
"When engaged in mathematical problem-solving, highly math-anxious individuals suffer from intrusive thoughts and ruminations," Daniel Ansari, principal investigator for the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at the University of Western Ontario, told the Washington Post. "This takes up some of their processing and working memory. It's very much as though individuals with math anxiety use up the brainpower they need for the problem" on stressing out.