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The What, Why, and Who of Math Anxiety

August 2, 2012

If you have math anxiety, your issue with solving number problems may have nothing to do with your math capability, or a disdain of numbers. A study done in England reveals it might have a little to do with your gender, however.

Researchers from Oxford and Cambridge Universities define math anxiety as:

“a state of discomfort caused by performing mathematical tasks [that] can be manifested as feelings of apprehension, dislike, tension, worry, frustration, and fear.”

Though the British research uncovered no gender difference in math achievement, girls in the study experienced more math anxiety than boys. (The study had a control to account for general test anxiety.) The girls’ math anxiety resulted in diminished performance on math exams.

So, Do Girls Dislike Numbers More Than Boys?

Another study reported in the journal Psychological Science found that math anxiety is a measurable biological response. Via MRI brain scanning while working with numbers, kids with high math anxiety showed increased activity in their brain’s amygdala and hippocampus. The amygdala plays a part in emotional regulation and our fear response. Our hippocampus is involved with memory and learning.

While the hippocampus and amygdala were hot with activity, the same children had less brain activity in some processing, number reasoning, and working memory areas of their gray matter. The MRIs explain why someone with math anxiety might say, “I look at math problems and I just can’t think.”

This research indicates that math anxiety is not a dislike for numbers or mathematics, but is a physical stress response triggered by having to solve math problems; but, why the anxiety?

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