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Math Anxiety Really Does Cause Headaches, Study Finds
November 3, 2012

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Math anxiety can cause real pain, a new study has found.

A team of researchers based at the University of Chicago has found that people who are predisposed to feel anxiety about doing mathematical problems experience an actual flood of activity in parts of the brain that experience pain. (For the record, the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans showed increased activity in the dorso-posterior insole and mid-cingulate cortex.)

The study involved 28 people, 14 of whom report no anxiety about doing math problems and 14 of whom reported great anxiety about doing math problems. The math-anxious ones, to a person, showed greater activity in those parts of the brain. In fact, the math-anxious the people were, the more activity those parts of the brain showed and, consequently, the more real pain they experienced. The people who didn't normally feel anxious about doing math experienced no such elevated activity.

What the scientists found most striking was that the people involved in the study didn't see any real math problems but only a colored symbol on a screen that indicated whether a math problem or a word problem was coming. No math problems or word problems were displayed, yet the symbols that signified the imminence of a math problem created a rush of painful activity in the brains of the math-anxious.

Related studies in the past have found links between pain and other emotionally traumatic events. The new study found the pain-trauma link from only the hint of an anxiety-causing activity.

The study is in the online journal PLoS ONE.



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