By Emma Meyers
To everyone that hates math (read: humanities majors): remember how awful the anticipation of a math text was? The flip-flopping of your stomach, the dry lump in your throat, the almost ritualistic under-your-breath repetitions of formulas as you took your seat and watched the papers being handed out, and the frenetic dreams of solving equations the night before the test? Well, all of those trigonometry-related trips to the school nurse may have been warranted – a recent study from the University of Chicago found that the anxious anticipation of having to math is actually coupled with activation of pain pathways in the brain.
Researchers used functional MRI scanning – a technique that detects differences in brain blood flow in order to image changes in activity – to look at subjects’ brain while they performed challenging math and verbal reasoning tasks. The subjects in were presented with the while in scanners, and each problem was preceded by a color-coded cue so that the subject would know which type of task would be presented next. When shown these cues, subjects with “high math anxiety” – essentially, those who reported feeling more anxiety during math-related activities – showed activation of brain regions strongly involved in the perception pain, especially in an area known as the posterior insula, which is implicated in the direct sensation of physical pain. The activation was less marked in the performance of the actual math task, so it is just anticipation, not the math itself, that hurts.
The authors, Lyons and Beilock, point out that their findings indicate that we might have to start changing how we think about why things are painful. Generally, scientists look at pain – whether physical or emotional – as being evolutionarily advantageous. Feeling physical pain when we touch something hot lets us know it is dangerous, and feeling emotionally hurt after social rejection motivates humans try to get along with groups, which are advantageous for protection and survival. Math, however, is not only relatively novel in human history, but also a culturally acquired activity that is basically evolutionarily irrelevant. The neural response seen here indicates that it might be necessary to look beyond evolution to understand why we perceive things as being painful.
Still, no paper is perfect, and brain imaging studies like this often leave us with as many questions as they answer. For one, the authors acknowledge the possibility that the areas activated by the math cue are not generating the sensation of physical pain, but actually responding to the visceral discomfort of psychological anxiety over math. Even if this was the case, they claim, their finding indicates a physical mechanism underlying math-anxious individuals’ aversion to math.
So, math haters everywhere, this is your chance to get out of your next test with a doctor’s note– the exam literally hurts.
Read the full study here.