Brain scans conducted while second- and third-grade students did addition and subtraction showed that those who feel scared about doing math had elevated activity in the amygdala, the main brain region associated with fear, researchers found. That in turn decreased activity in parts of the brain involved in problem-solving.
"The same part of the brain that responds to fearful situations, such as seeing a spider or a snake, also shows a heightened response in children with high math anxiety," said Vinod Menon, a research professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
Menon's team performed functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans on 46 second- and third graders with low and high math anxiety. Outside the MRI scanner, the children were assessed for math anxiety with a modified version of a standardized questionnaire for adults. The kids also took standardized intelligence and cognitive tests.
The results were published online March 20 in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
While prior research has focused on behavioral aspects of math anxiety, Menon said he wants to find biological evidence of its existence.
Math anxiety is an under-studied phenomenon, he said.
"It's remarkable that, although the phenomena was first identified over 50 years back, nobody had bothered to ask how math anxiety manifests itself in terms of neural activity," Menon said.
Tests for math anxiety ask people about their emotional responses to situations and problems involving math. It is possible for someone to be good at math and still suffer from math anxiety, but over time such people tend to avoid advanced classes, limiting their career options, he said.
Math anxiety is neurobiologically similar to other kinds of anxiety or phobias.
"You cannot just wish it away as something that's unreal," Menon said. "Our findings validate math anxiety as a genuine type of stimulus- and situation-specific anxiety."
In the brain scans, children with high math anxiety showed heightened activity in the amygdala and also in a section of the hippocampus, a brain structure that helps form new memories. They also had decreased activity in several brain regions associated with working memory and numerical reasoning. Analysis showed the increased activity in the fear center was driving the reduced function in numerical information-processing regions of the brain, he said.
Children with high math anxiety were less accurate and significantly slower at solving math problems than children with low math anxiety, Menon said.
"The results are a significant step toward our understanding of brain function during math anxiety and will influence development of new academic interventions," said Victor Carrion, a pediatric psychiatrist at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and an expert in anxiety in children, who was not involved in Menon's research.
The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation and was also supported by Stanford's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
Menon's lab is seeking children ages 7 to 12 to participate in further research. More information is available at Stanford's "Math Brain" website, mathbrain.stanford.edu, or by contacting Leslie McNeil at firstname.lastname@example.org or 650-736-0128.