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Brain boffins: 'Yes, math CAN make your head hurt – LITERALLY'

It's not math itself that causes pain – it's the anticipation

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When someone says that math makes their head hurt, they may not be speaking metaphorically. A new study has shown that math anxiety can cause actual, physical pain.

"We show that, when anticipating an upcoming math-task," the researchers explain, "the higher one's math anxiety, the more one increases activity in regions associated with visceral threat detection, and often the experience of pain itself."

The research that led to this conclusion was published in a paper entitled "When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math," which appeared this week in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed open-access online journal published by the Public Library of Science, better known simply as PLOS

The paper's authors, Ian Lyons of the University of Chicago and Sian Beilock of London, Ontario's Western University, used the Short Math Anxiety Rating-Scale (SMARS), a 40-item version of the standard 98-item Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale, to identify 14 subjects with high levels of mathematics anxiety (HMAs) and 14 low math-anxious individuals (LMAs).

After some preliminary screening and testing, Lyons and Beilock analyzed each subject's brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques while asking each to perform a set of word- and math-based tasks, ranging from simple to difficult.

"Crucially," the researchers explain, "before each task-block, a cue (yellow circle or blue square) indicated whether the math-task or word-task would follow." This step was important because it allowed Lyons and Beilock to determine whether it was the anxiety preceeding the actual task that caused neural disturbances, or whether it was the performance of the task itself.

The researchers discovered that areas in the brains of the HMAs which are associated with pain perception – the dorso-posterior insula and mid-cingulate cortex, to be precise – lit up when the math anxiety–afflicted subjects being tested saw the visual cue that a math problem was coming up next. The LMAs had no such response.

Interestingly, those areas calmed down while the HMAs were actually performing the math task – an indication that the term "math anxiety" is well-phrased. "Given our findings were specific to cue-activity," the authors write, "it is not that math itself hurts; rather, merely the anticipation of math is painful." ®

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