Worry about math can trigger regions of the brain associated with the experience of physical pain and instinctive risk detection, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and published in PLOS ONE.

Ian Lyons and his team of researchers discovered that in people who experience high levels of anxiety when anticipating math tasks, encountering math increases activity in regions of the brain connected with the feeling of physical pain. The more elevated a person’s math anxiety, the greater the appearance of neural activity is.

The investigators explained, “We provide the first neural evidence indicating the nature of the subjective experience of math-anxiety.”

Researchers analyzed 14 adults who experienced anxiety from math based on their answers from a questionnaire about math. Questions measured their anxiety by asking their feelings when receiving a math book, having math requirements for graduation, and walking to math class. Further testing revealed these individuals were not generally anxious and that their heightened feelings of anxiety were due to math-specific situations.

The study participants were then tested in an fMRI machine measuring their brain activity as they did math. They were asked to verify equations as well as solve world puzzles.

The fMRI scans showed the worry of upcoming math events triggered a response in the brain similar to physical pain. The higher the anxiety about math, the more math anticipation activated the posterior insula, a piece of tissue deep in the brain located above the ear, and is connected to acknowledging threats to the body as well as physical pain.

Previous research has told us that children with a higher mathematic anxiety have a decreased performance level in mathematics. They feel uncomfortable when doing mathematic tasks.

A separate study done by the Stanford University School, says that children who experience math anxiety exhibit an altered brain function. In other words, these panicky and frightened feelings can actually decrease activity in the area of the brain that deals with math.

Earlier studies have indicated that other forms of psychological stress, like a traumatic break-up, or social rejection, can also cause feelings of physical pain. However, this particular study analyzes the pain response connected with anticipating an anxiety-inducing event, instead of the pain connected to the stressful event itself.

This new study points out that just the anticipation of a distressing event could be associated with the activation of neural regions contributing to processing physical pain.

The authors conclude that their findings suggest that it is not the act of performing a mathematical task that prompts this response, but rather the anticipation of math.

These results give a possible neural platform for the observation that people with high math anxiety are more likely to avoid math-related situations, like math classes and math-related careers. Therefore, avoidance comes from experiencing this painful anxiety.

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald