It's all in your head: Brain researchers think mental concentration and learning to control emotions could be the key to overcoming math anxiety.
For students who tense up when presented with a math problem, nothing is more annoying than hearing that the problem is "all in your head." But the latest research in Cerebral Cortex suggests that the most compelling cure to math anxiety might actually be a little bit of psychological preparedness.
Brain researchers have long seen math anxiety as a genuine and measurable emotional reaction that increases stress on the hypothalamus. Two University of Chicago academics, psychology professor Sian L. Beilock and doctoral candidate Ian M. Lyons, have researched the role of fear in math performance through something called "functional magnetic resonance imaging." The technology enables scientists to separate neural activity into two camps: the way the brain reacts when a student anticipates doing math, and the way it reacts when the student is actually performing the problem. Their measurements revealed that the key to boosting students' math performance isn't through remedial teaching, but through providing students tools to cope with their fears.
The researchers wrote that students' ability to "call upon the frontoparietal regions" of the brain "before the math task has even begun" is key. That means that if students can be taught to focus themselves mentally and control their emotions—through meditation or other kinds of centering exercises—they might indeed be capable of overcoming their anxiety.
About as many people suffer from severe math anxiety as have dyslexia. So finding a cure could have a life-changing impact on a significant portion of the population. At a time when increasing the number of students enrolled in STEM fields is a national priority, this research could help students who might have once said "I'm not a math person" to join a new generation of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers.