A study finds that children who have a great difficulty with math actually exhibit an altered brain function due to anxiety. That’s right, fear of math itself is enough to make a child, (or adult), perform more poorly when working out math problems. This is a new way of looking at what could be causing what appears to be a learning disability.
The study was done by the Stanford University School of Medicine. It was led by Vinod Menon, PhD, who is a Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans on the children who were in the study. There were around 50 kids involved in the study. The children were either in the second grade, or they were in the third grade.
Some experienced low math anxiety, and others experienced high math anxiety. Each child was assessed for math anxiety based on the result of a modified version of a standardized questionnaire that was originally designed for adults. The children also were given a test of their standard intelligence, and a test that examined their cognitive ability.
The study revealed an interesting, and perhaps unexpected, finding. The brain scans showed that the children who had a math anxiety actually experienced altered brain function when faced with the task of doing math problems. Vinod Menon, leader of the study, describes it this way:
“The same part of the brain that responds to fearful situations, such as seeing a spider or snake, also shows a heightened response in children with high math anxiety.”
The children who showed this sort of brain activity associated certain feelings with math. They felt panicky, or frightened. Their fear actually decreased the activity in the part of their brains that handles things like the ability to work out a math equation.
Right now, in schools, kids who struggle with math are placed into lower level math classes. They might be handed math manipulatives to use, in the hopes that having a visual representation of the numbers might help the child to better comprehend the math they are working on, and to assist them in coming up with the correct answer to a math problem. Teachers don’t help the child to overcome his or her anxiety about math.
Math anxiety was first identified over 50 years ago. Until now, no one had bothered to study how math anxiety affects the brain and neural activity. The study finds that this type of anxiety is a genuine type of stimulus and situation specific activity. It is a real thing, that actually exists.
Perhaps the findings of this study will lead to a new way to work with children who appear to have a learning disability connected to mathematics. Maybe a counselor could help the child with his or her anxiety about math. The removal of the anxiety response could be all that is needed for a child with math anxiety to excel in mathematics.
Image by Shawn Campbell on Flickr