The pain of math

Difficulties with math, from balancing a checkbook to tallying a tip, can cause some people to feel genuine pain. That’s the finding of a study that examined the brains of people with high levels of math anxiety as they performed algebra problems. While the volunteers waited to receive each question, a region of the brain involved in processing physical pain became especially active.

University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock tells the same region also appears to register intense emotional anguish, like the feelings surrounding a bad breakup. Among those who fear math, the region lights up when they merely think about the subject, causing them to feel similar distress—a sensation that is bound to reinforce their math anxieties. But surprisingly, the dorso-posterior insula became active only while volunteers waited to receive their next problem—not while they were actually doing it. “It is not that math itself hurts,” Beilock and her colleagues reason. “Rather, merely the anticipation of math is painful.”

The Week Magazine