How math causes physical pain

Scientists use brain scans to discover that those who experience anxiety about math problems have brain responses similar to those who are being physically hurt.

Please, don't be scared. AlexNTV/YouTube Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Mental discomfort often has irrational roots.

There are those who walk into art galleries and feel intimidated by all the serious faces. There are those who stare at menus written in a foreign language and wish they weren't on vacation.

And there are those who look at math problems and wish they had some Xanax.

If you're one of those who is pained by your mathophobia, please let me mop your brow. For the discomfort you feel is, scientifically speaking, little different from physical pain.

I am relieved that my regular reading of Medical XPress has unearthed a startling finding: mathophobes experience brain responses to math that are similar to their responses when someone punches them in the face. Or pinches their arm. Or pulls their hair.

At the University of Chicago, they are delving deeply into mathophobia. (Yes, I did just make up that word.)

Using brain scans, they concluded that the mere thought of having to solve a math problem causes quasi-physical pain.

Medical XPress quoted Ian Lyons, a psychology graduate from the University of Chicago and a postdoctoral scholar at Western University in Ontario, Canada: "The brain activation does not happen during math performance, suggesting that it is not the math itself that hurts; rather the anticipation of math is painful."

Math hurts because fear of math hurts.

To be more precise, it hurts in the posterior insula. This is deep inside the brain, just above the ear. It's where your brain begins to register the threat of pain.

Anxiety in general can often impede performance. When it comes to math, there seem often to be a simple divide between those who can and those who can't.

Yet those who supposedly can't might simply be experiencing a painful fear, rather than an inability.

Some of the University of Chicago's work has shown that if you write about your math anxiety before you confront the math itself, you are likely to do better.

Perhaps writing is the cure for so many phobias.

Next time you fear math, please don't resort to crying, chocolate or some other tired old remedy.

Write a poem about your fear. And watch yourself turn into a cross between Pablo Neruda and Einstein.

 

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