Researcher: Math anxiety changes children's brains

Second- and third-graders underwent brain scans while doing addition, subtraction problems

Brains function differently in children who have math anxiety than those who don't, Stanford University researchers have discovered.

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 amygdale, 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 or by contacting Leslie McNeil at or 650-736-0128.

Chris Kenrick


Like this comment
Posted by Doug
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 26, 2012 at 8:56 pm

When a person is scared, they loose fine motor skills and the ability to do complex tasks. Math anxiety is just a more subtle form of this condition.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 27, 2012 at 2:26 am

Looking for math anxiety, scan the brain of someone manually filling out a 1040.

ps to staff, check amygdale (sic) spelling, unless rocks for brains was intentional.

Like this comment
Posted by Tom H
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 27, 2012 at 6:28 am

The article does not support the headline "Researcher: Math anxiety changes children's brains". The headline implies that math anxiety is the cause of the elevated activity in the amigdala, but there is nothing in the article that addresses which is the cause and which is the effect, only that they are correlated.

Like this comment
Posted by Ronnie
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 27, 2012 at 8:38 am

That is pretty interesting. As an adult with a 3rd grade kid, I am honestly starting to feel the same sense of anxiety and frustration trying to help with his homework! I am definitely afraid that its rubbing off.
Of course, I love the focus we have on literacy here in PA - I think the kids are great readers. But, I want to see that same focus on building really great math literacy. It seems to come natural for some kids, but for others it does, like this study suggests, provoke a great deal of anxiety. I just think those kids might need to get a firmer footing earlier.
I'm no teacher - just an observation, but I am getting serious math flashbacks to grade school !

Like this comment
Posted by cautious
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 28, 2012 at 9:34 am

This research begs a couple of other questions:

are there reading and writing anxieties? i'd bet the answer is yes.

which comes first the anxiety problem and is it present for public speaking, etc. or does the subject's inability with math come first then causing the anxiety?

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Posted by Interesting
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 28, 2012 at 2:48 pm

So this means that the time test on addition, substraction, and division, are causing anxiety in our kids? Interesting, then how come PAUSD keeps this practice. What is the point of doing it? They could do it, but without the timer.

Like this comment
Posted by cautious
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 29, 2012 at 10:47 am

timed testing is required by the state - at least that is what we were told by 5th grade teacher

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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