For the highly math anxious, researchers found a strong link between math success and activity in a network of brain areas in the frontal and parietal lobes involved in controlling attention and regulating negative emotional reactions. This response kicked in at the very mention of having to solve a mathematics problem.
Teachers as well as students can use the information to improve performance in mathematics, said Doctor Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago. "Classroom practices that help students focus their attention and engage in the math task at hand may help eliminate the poor performance brought on by math anxiety," said Beilock, a leading expert on mathematics anxiety.
Instead of feeling anxious about an impending math task, students who could focus their attention were able to complete difficult math problems more successfully. Perhaps counter-intuitively, their success was not just about activating areas of the brain involved in math calculation. For math-anxious individuals to succeed, they need to focus on controlling their emotions, Beilock said.
The study began by administering a questionnaire to a group of University of Chicago students to determine if they had math anxiety. Students answered questions about how anxious they felt when registering for a math course, walking to a challenging math class, being handed a math textbook and so on. Lyons and Beilock then invited a group of students who were especially anxious about these math-related tasks to have their brains scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they performed difficult math problems and a similarly difficult spelling task. A group of non-math-anxious students was selected as a control group.
The study found that for the highly math-anxious students who performed well on the math task, the brain activity that started during the anticipation phase initiated a cascade of brain activity during completion of the math task itself. This activity did not involve areas typically associated with performing numerical calculations. Rather, it was seen in subcortical structures — especially caudate and nucleus accumbens — associated with motivation and juggling risks and rewards with the demands of the task at hand.
"Essentially, overcoming math anxiety appears to be less about what you know and more about convincing yourself to just buckle down and get to it," Beilock said. "But if you wait till the math exam has already started to deal with your anxiety, it's already too late," Lyons added.
MEDICA.de; Source: University of Chicago