By Erin Allday, San Francisco Chronicle
Human beings have all kinds of irrational fears and anxieties about everyday objects and situations: spiders and snakes, heights and enclosed spaces, airplanes and needles. Math.
That last one, in fact, may be very common, just going by the number of adults who freely admit to hating math or being bad at it. That supposed dislike of math, scientists say, may be disguising a real phobia that probably begins at an early age.
Stanford researchers studying math anxiety in second- and third-grade students found that kids who were stressed about math had brain activity patterns similar to people with other phobias. When the children were faced with a simple addition problem, the parts of their brain that feel stress lit up – and the parts that are good at doing math deactivated.
Interestingly, the children with math anxiety weren’t actually bad at math – they got about the same number of answers right as their anxiety-free peers – but it took them more time to solve the problems.
The good news, researchers say, is that phobias are treatable, which means there may be a way to cure kids’ anxiety before they develop a lifelong aversion to math.
“We already have mechanisms that are widely used to treat these other phobias. If the same brain system is involved with math anxiety, you should be able to use those mechanisms,” said Vinod Menon, a professor of neurology and psychiatry who led the Stanford study. “What the math field might want to think about is doing this at earlier ages. Once math becomes a strongly learned fear, then it’s much more difficult to treat.”