Dealing with math anxiety

November, 2011

A new study shows that some math-anxious students can overcome performance deficits through their ability to control their negative responses. The finding indicates that interventions should focus on anticipatory cognitive control.

Math-anxiety can greatly lower performance on math problems, but just because you suffer from math-anxiety doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to perform badly. A study involving 28 college students has found that some of the students anxious about math performed better than other math-anxious students, and such performance differences were associated with differences in brain activity.

Math-anxious students who performed well showed increased activity in fronto-parietal regions of the brain prior to doing math problems — that is, in preparation for it. Those students who activated these regions got an average 83% of the problems correct, compared to 88% for students with low math anxiety, and 68% for math-anxious students who didn’t activate these regions. (Students with low anxiety didn’t activate them either.)

The fronto-parietal regions activated included the inferior frontal junction, inferior parietal lobule, and left anterior inferior frontal gyrus — regions involved in cognitive control and reappraisal of negative emotional responses (e.g. task-shifting and inhibiting inappropriate responses). Such anticipatory activity in the fronto-parietal region correlated with activity in the dorsomedial caudate, nucleus accumbens, and left hippocampus during math activity. These sub-cortical regions (regions deep within the brain, beneath the cortex) are important for coordinating task demands and motivational factors during the execution of a task. In particular, the dorsomedial caudate and hippocampus are highly interconnected and thought to form a circuit important for flexible, on-line processing. In contrast, performance was not affected by activity in ‘emotional’ regions, such as the amygdala, insula, and hypothalamus.

In other words, what’s important is not your level of anxiety, but your ability to prepare yourself for it, and control your responses. What this suggests is that the best way of dealing with math anxiety is to learn how to control negative emotional responses to math, rather than trying to get rid of them.

Given that cognitive control and emotional regulation are slow to mature, it also suggests that these effects are greater among younger students.

The findings are consistent with a theory that anxiety hinders cognitive performance by limiting the ability to shift attention and inhibit irrelevant/distracting information.

Note that students in the two groups (high and low anxiety) did not differ in working memory capacity or in general levels of anxiety.

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