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Thanks science! Math phobia can literally cause brain pain

We knew it! There’s a good reason your body, brain, and heart physically avoided math homework and dreaded fulfilling those required quantitative skills credit all these years. A recent study by researchers at the University of Chicago has concluded that math anxiety can actually result in physical brain pain, so much so that even the thought of doing math makes the brain hurt.

“For someone who has math anxiety, the anticipation of doing math prompts a similar brain reaction as when they experience pain—say, burning one’s hand on a hot stove,” Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, tells Medical Xpress.

The study found that the anticipation of doing math, such as fearing an exam or dreading going to a class, triggers more of the pseudo pain reaction than the attempt to solve actual math problems. The experiment looked at instances of math anxiety such as handing 14 adult test subjects a math textbook and giving them the math credit requirements for graduation. During these mini anxiety attacks, researchers found heightened activities in the posterior insula, an area in the brain which registers physical pain. Comparatively, participants had much lower posterior insula activity levels while they were solving math problems, puzzles, and word riddles.

With that said, we apologize in advance if we have hurt your brain with the picture above.

The study, supported by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education, also stated that the math phobia can begin as early as first grade. Additionally, female elementary school teachers can transmit their math anxiety to their female students, influencing them to hate math just as much as they do. The research concludes that since the problem lies to the fear of doing math, an integral school subject, more must be done to help student feel more comfortable about math rather than piling on homework to make them theoretically better at it.

All this explains every reason why I feel nauseous each walk before my math midterm but walk out of there feeling like a boulder has been lifted off my shoulders, despite my performance. However, this only happens to me in particular math subjects I despise, such as calculus and, bleh, graphing. Totally okay with proofs and algebra though.

Still, the result of this study makes too much sense, we’re thankful science just got around to proving it. In fact, fearing the anticipating of math of probably scarier than “burning one’s hand on a hot stove,” because at least in the latter situation, you won’t really know it’s coming that far in advanced. So if your parents get on you for not majoring in math to become a doctor or scientist, you can wager your physical well-being against their pleas. We won’t guarantee it’ll work, but hey, it’s science!

Image credit: Flickr/rodtuk

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