Fear of math can activate regions of the brain linked with the experience of physical pain and visceral threat detection, according to research published Oct 31 by Ian Lyons and colleagues at the University of Chicago in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

The researchers found that in individuals who experience high levels of anxiety when facing math tasks, the anticipation of math increases activity in regions of the brain associated with the physical sensation of pain. The higher an individual's math anxiety, the more such neural activity was increased.

According to the researchers, "We provide the first neural evidence indicating the nature of the subjective experience of math-anxiety."

Previous research has shown that other forms of psychological stress, such as social rejection or a traumatic break-up, can also elicit feelings of physical pain. However, the current study examines the pain response associated with anticipating an anxiety-provoking event, rather than the pain associated with a stressful event itself.

This new research suggests that simply anticipating an unpleasant event may be associated with the activation of neural regions involved in processing physical pain. The authors say their results indicate that it is not the performance of a mathematical task that elicits this reaction, but merely the anticipation of math. These results provide a potential neural basis for the observation that individuals with high math anxiety tend to avoid math-related situations, including avoiding classes or math-related careers.