Even if you aren’t using Dolores Umbridge’s cursed quill, researchers find the anticipation of math can be literally painful.
A study released Oct. 31 in the PLOS One journal shows that mathematics-related anxiety can lead to affected students feeling physical pain when anticipating doing math.
Ian Lyons, a post-doctoral fellow at Western University, completed the study during his time at the University of Chicago. Lyons said the study showed that when anticipating upcoming math tasks, the level of anxiety the subject exhibited was directly related to the amount of pain experienced.
“We did find it interesting that the results were specific to the anticipation period, that there was no evidence of pain-related activity during the actual math task itself,” he said.
Lyons, who conducted the study with fellow Western University researcher Sian Beilock, said the pain some students feel in anticipating doing math can impact their academic life.
“There is considerable evidence that students with math anxiety, on average, do perform worse on a multitude of laboratory math tasks, do worse on standardized math tests and tend to avoid math-related career paths altogether,” he said.
Lyons said any treatment of pain-inducing anxiety should try to address the root cause, not simply expose the individual to more math.
“One implication of these results is that simply piling on more math homework is unlikely to be an effective means of treating math anxiety,” Lyons said. “Instead, one needs to treat the anxiety itself. In particular, if those with math anxiety view math as literally painful, then it is quite reasonable that they should want to avoid this painful stimulus. By avoiding math, however, they are unlikely to improve their math ability, which simply compounds the problem. Thus, one needs to go to the root of the problem and and address the anxiety.”
Lyons said, however, that additional evidence shows that highly anxious individuals when anticipating math tests can perform on a level similar to that of low anxiety individuals. He said that altogether, the pain-related activity isn’t driven by genetic factors.
“Math is a recent cultural invention, so it seems unlikely that this is an evolutionarily adapted response,” Lyons said. “Instead, this pain-related activity at the prospect of doing math is likely driven by an individual’s specific experiences.”
Lyons said in the future he would like to see whether his results relate to other forms of anxiety or phobias.
John Grych, a professor of psychology at Marquette, said the study is an example of the link between mind and body.
“We’ve known for a long time that the experience of pain is modulated by other psychological processes, but showing that emotional pain has physical correlates is more novel,” Grych said.
Grych said anxiety is treatable and shouldn’t cause problems for students’ future success.
“Students with any kind of academic-related anxiety, such as test anxiety, will find it more difficult to perform up to their potential,” Grych said. “Fortunately, anxiety is very treatable and so students who experience high levels of anxiety can learn how to manage it so that it isn’t so disruptive.”
Gary Krenz, a Marquette professor of mathematics, agreed, reflecting on his experience, that students who experience this type of anxiety often avoid math-related careers.
“My experience after many years of teaching (is this): It seems that people who have math apprehension second-guess their math-related efforts or struggle starting math-related work,” Krenz said.
Kristen Strem, a junior in the College of Communication, said she doesn’t understand how anticipating math related events can cause pain.
“I think people can have anxiety about pretty much everything in life, but I don’t understand how they can feel pain when anticipating participating in an action,” Strem said. “They aren’t physically doing the action, they are just thinking about it, which doesn’t really make sense to me.”