Math problems can trigger physical pain, study says

Math problems can actually cause people anxiety and physical pain, similar to a punch in the gut, a new Canadian study shows.
Anxiety about doing math problems can actually trigger a response in the brain, similar to a punch in the gut, a new study says. (The Abilene Reporter-News, Nellie Doneva/Associated Press)

Math problems can actually cause people anxiety and physical pain, similar to a punch in the gut, a new Canadian study shows.

For people who have anxiety about the school subject, the prospect of performing calculus or other mathematical calculations triggers a response in the brain related to visceral pain, according to a study published in the journal PloS One.

Researchers examined the brain activity of 28 subjects as they were told they were about do math and while they were completing math problems, said Dr. Ian Lyons, a post-doctoral fellow from the Department of Psychology at Western University in London, Ont.

"It turned out that areas [of the brain] that are really important for perceiving pain… think like a stomach ache or a gut punch, these areas were active," he said during an interview with CBC's Quirks and Quarks. "But only during the anticipation."

The study, conducted by Lyons and Sian L. Beilock from the University of Chicago's psychology department, found that when the subjects were completing math problems, however, they did not show these pain responses.

"We were especially surprised to see it during the anticipation period, and not the actual doing of the math," Lyons said.

"But the more we thought about it, the more it makes a little bit of sense. Because math is just a bunch of numbers on a page … and really, anxiety is about the psychological interpretation."

Negative reaction likely due to past experiences

And because mathematics is a relatively recent cultural invention, the scientists theorized that this anxiety and pain was not a reaction rooted in evolution, such as the fear of snakes or spiders.

Rather, it is likely caused by an individual's negative experience, Lyons said.

"Was it that they were up at a chalk board and their classmates were making fun of them? Or a teacher scolded them when they were a kid? We're not really sure what that would be for a given individual," Lyons said.

"But that being said, whatever that learned response was now seems to elicit this feeling of pain — at least when you tell someone they're about to do math."

The study's results can help teachers assist students with math anxiety more effectively, he added.

Piling on the math homework "seems unlikely to be beneficial", he said.

"What seems more likely to be effective is treating the anxiety itself. So that you're better equipped to go, and do, and practice and learn the math," he said.