Science Proves Math Can Literally Be Painful

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For those of us who are math-challenged, having to quickly make correct change or calculate a tip can be a harrowing affair that results in anxiety and public embarrassment — and, according to science, even physical pain.

A recent study, published on October 31st, 2012, in the journal PLoS ONE, has proven that worrying about a math test can elicit the same reaction in the brain as physical pain does. It’s not the math itself: in “math-anxious” individuals, it’s the anticipation of the math that hurts.

For the study, researchers Ian M. Lyons and Sian L. Beilock had subjects, who had previously been tested for math-anxiety, stare at a screen and do both math and word problems while in an fMRI machine measured their brain activity. Before each problem was displayed, either a yellow circle or a blue square would appear on the screen to indicate whether the next problem would be math or word-related.

Subjects who tested high for math-anxiety showed activity in the posterior insula – a part of the brain associated with physical pain – when the symbol representing a math problem was displayed.

So there it is. Thinking about math can be physically painful. Thanks, science!

As a person who, even as an adult, still cannot do simple math without counting on her fingers, I can 100 percent attest to this. The thought of having to do a math test makes me feel awful and sick. Luckily, despite my fourth grade math teacher telling me it was unreasonable, I do carry a calculator (in the form of a smartphone) with me at all times. Take that, Mrs. P! Didn’t see that technological advancement coming, did you?

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