Someone asks you to perform a simple arithmetic calculation, or perhaps you encounter these while doing your income tax. As a consumer you might want to compare the cost of two products with different sales prices. Or perhaps the tags give you the same product by two different manufactures who tell you the unit cost, but the products are in either 12-count or 18-count packages. The odds are very good that along with millions of other adults you will have some trepidation in ‘doing the math’. That’s because math anxiety (MA) is endemic not only among US adults but around the world. It crosses ethnic groups, cultures and continents. According to a recent study of MA 93% of all adults in the US suffer from some level of this condition; internationally and across many cultures, this incidence can be over 40%. It is reinforced by parents, the news media, and even by teachers using outdated pedagogy– all with devastating consequences, long-term. Like ADHD, you can find yourself somewhere on the Math Anxiety Spectrum. Your location might even change as you advance from childhood to adulthood.
Your Brain on Math
The evolution of our brains over millions of years has prepared it to do many kinds of math but often at an unconscious level. We, along with thousands of other species, have an innate ability to compare quantities and figure which is larger. Some species can even count including chimpanzees, crows, bees and frogs. Our brains come hard-wired at birth to understand addition and subtraction. There are actual brain neurons in the parahippocampal cortex that are only active during addition while others are only active during subtraction.They also respond when the instruction is written down symbolically as a word or a symbol (five and three or 5+3).
The number of brain regions involved in mathematics performance reads like a catalog of nearly half of the cerebral cortex itself. This means that many of these math-activated regions are also used for other purposes in the brain. This is a common feature of brain architecture in that regions are recycled to form other neuronal networks depending on the task at hand.
- Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex
- Left inferior parietal lobe
- Left precentral gyrus
- Left superior parietal lobe
- Left supramarginal gyrus
- Left middle temporal gyrus
- Middle cingulate cortex
- Middle frontal gyrus
- Superior temporal gyrus
- Inferior frontal gyrus
- Bilateral intraparietal region
- Dorsal prefrontal region
- Inferior temporal region
As a brain matures, these regions respond to external experiences but are always influenced by innate survival instincts provided by the limbic system composed of the thalamus and the amygdala. When no previous negative experiences trigger a limbic response for fight-or-flight, all is well. Even by the age of 7, children still have an enthusiastic and playful attitude towards math. This attitude unfortunately starts to wane in direct proportion to the number of negative performance tests they experience, which is why MA arises.
A common view shared by many MA students is that, unless I can do math quickly, I must not be very good at it. This is also a pervasive attitude among adults who, despite performing well in grade-school math may still not see themselves ‘good’ at math. Math skills are unlike reading skills because there has evolved over time a massive social permissiveness to being a poor math performer that simply isn’t found in other academic topics.
Thanks to advances in brain research and mapping, we have a ring-side seat into what brain regions and neuronal circuitries are responsible, not only for handling mathematical problem-solving of increased sophistication, but how this process maps into generating anxiety. There is even a specific brain protein called MAOA that correlates with MA and can be used to spy on your emotional state as you are confronted with different problems.
Math comprehension and execution, like our language centers (Broca and Wernicke Regions) are activated primarily in two main regions: The parietal lobe is involved with calculating and processing numbers; The frontal lobe is involved in recalling numerical knowledge and working memory.
The sub-region called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is most curious because it is also activated as we regulate our emotions. For example, most children learn how to tone-down their glee at winning a game when they see their friends are mortified at having lost. In math this region seems to be activated when the individual is keeping track of more than one concept at a time. This region, which in math helps us keep relevant problem-solving information ‘fresh’ in our working memory, is also shared by circuits that allow us to suppress selfish behavior, foster commitment in relationships, and inferring the intentions of others, which is called a Theory of Mind. Researchers have proposed that math training not only makes us better at math, but also strengthens our ability to moderate our feelings and our social interactions because of the brains proclivity in sharing brain regions for other purposes.
The Amygdala Hijack
Brain imaging studies show that individuals with MA, not unexpectedly, activate circuits associated with negative emotional processing (amygdala, prefrontal cortex), the experience of pain (insula), but also areas involved with inhibiting irrelevant information, and conflict processing. The emotional control network is activated even before mathematical performance occurs. MA does its dirty work by literally robbing the individual of resources in its working memory so that they no longer have access to recalling how similar problems were previously solved. In fact, actual physical changes to the brains of MA students were found in the amygdala, the anterior corpus callosum, the right inferior frontal sulcus and the pericallosal sulcus. In particular the right amygdala volume is smaller and more reactive in students with MA. Chronic hyperactivity of the amygdala in response to stress results in cellular atrophy and a decreased ability to regulate negative emotions. This effect continues into adulthood, so repeated negative math experiences in childhood alters the way that adults handle MA in a way that is both cumulative and apparently not easily mitigated in adulthood because it involves physical changes (atrophy) to specific brain regions.
One of the most troubling features of exercising a math skill is that the regions used are also connected via neuronal synapses to the prefrontal cortex and to the amygdala. The PFC is a vital executive brain region used for synthesizing data symbolically, keeping information present in a ‘working memory’ and forecasting what happens next. This means that getting better at math allows your PFC to be trained to make better decisions about the future. But here is the BIG PROBLEM. The amygdala also watches over this process and stamps it with an emotional context. Under conditions were the stress hormone cortisol is elevated, the amygdala sees your current condition as a fight-or-flight situation and ‘hijacks’ your brain. This immediately shuts down your PFC and flavors your conscious thinking with the survival instinct of wanting to flee the situation. Forget about logic and planning – it’s time to run! Of course this is not possible when working on a difficult math problem, plus the hijack has now robbed you of clear executive thinking, planning and working memory, which only increases the cortisol.
This cycle of increasing stress can be defeated by first recognizing it is happening (sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat), using deep slow breathing, and especially clearing your mind of intrusive thoughts. It only takes 90 seconds to defeat this progression. But sometimes, putting yourself in a state where MA cannot get a toe-hold is ‘simply’ a matter of not triggering the Amygdala Hijack in the first place. Here are some recommendations for teachers from researchers who have studied this triggering process.
- Incorporate math into real-world concepts that students understand.
- Focus on the fun elements of math like pattern making and a curiosity about numbers, not on rote memorization and theory.
- Have them see how numbers and data literacy surround them in life from supermarket shopping to predicting future trends.
- Avoid negative self-talk. Train yourself to have a positive attitude.
- Consider math as a foreign language that takes practice.
- Break the vicious downward cycle of a bad test grade leading to lower self-esteem leading to another bad test grade leading to still-lower self-esteem.
- Never scold a student for being wrong or having failed to perform a ‘simple’ math task.
- Never tell your child ‘I was never good at math either’. This tells the child they can succeed in life without knowing math, which is demonstrably false in the 21st century.
- Find ways to provide alternate student assessments rather than timed tests. This is a major source of stress and a key factor in MA.
- Investigate ‘mixed-ability’ groupings to avoid placing MA student together, which only reinforces and normalizes MA through peer-pressure.
- Make math fun with lots of positive reinforcement. This reduces stress and heart rates and mitigates MA.
- Have parents read math-related bedtime stories.
- Encourage understanding not rote memorization. STEM professionals are those who think slowly, creatively and deeply..not necessarily quickly.
- Display ‘anchor charts’ with examples of work, previous problems or formulas as visual clues to recall previous material.
- Draw or write down facts or relevant equations before working on a math problem
- Have students describe the problem to a partner to help articulate their thinking
- Start the class with a ‘diffuser’ such as sharing a joke, or asking ‘who can tell me something we did in class yesterday?”
- Focus on how a student got their answer and not on it whether it is right or wrong. If incorrect the student may realize this as they explain the process they used.
- Allow students to post pictures or written explanations of their methods of solving a problem.
- Pay attention to the words you use. Instead of ‘this is easy’ say ‘this is like the problem we did yesterday”.
- Always project a positive, confident attitude to support modeling MA-free behavior and attitudes.
Here’s some bad news. MA might be genetically inheritable. The epigenetic genome controls how genes are expressed. It represents an additional way that traits and tendencies can be passed on. It is well known that traumas to parents can be passed to children, especially starvation and malnutrition. If the starving mother is pregnant, the epigenome she gives to her fetus can cause childhood difficulties in expressing proteins needed for proper digestion. Epigenetics also seems to explain how stress-related disorders can be inherited. According to a review article by TruDiagnostic published in 2020, the amount of cortisol in the brain can be regulated by the inherited epigenetic genome and predispose a child to stress-related behavior. It is not impossible that the same transfer of tendencies might happen that predispose the child to MA. MA seems to result from an interaction of genetic vulnerability with negative experiences learning math. Only an unkind word from a teacher, parent or social group would be enough to set MA in motion, full-blown.
Researchers have also found that a molecular genetic marker called the monoamine oxidase A gene (MAOA) when not expressed at high enough levels correlates with increased MA especially in girls who are known from other studies to be especially susceptible to MA. However, Zhe Wang at Ohio State finds that genetic factors may only account for about 40% of the individual differences in math performance based on a study of 216 twins “If you have these genetic risk factors for math anxiety and then you have negative experiences in math class, it may make learning that much harder.”
MA causes millions of children, especially girls, to not consider STEM careers. This can relegate them to lower-paying jobs that are less quantitative in skill-set. With manual cash registers, some arithmetic acumen was always required even in low-paying sales jobs. Today, change is made with computerized terminals so low-paying jobs require virtually no math and are free of MA triggers. However, the consequences of not continuing math education in adolescence can be potentially disastrous not only reducing their career options but in the actual development of their brains.
A recent study of adolescents in the UK shows that a lack of math education affects adolescent brain development. In the UK, students can elect to end their math education at age 16. The chemical called gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) is present in the middle front gyrus (MFG), which is a region involved in reasoning and cognitive learning. GABA levels are a predictor of changes in mathematical reasoning as much as 19 months later. What was found among the older adolescents was that GABA showed a marked reduction. Because this chemical is also involved in brain plasticity and the ability to learn new skills and thinking, this reduction at this critical stage in brain development can have far-reaching impacts into adulthood.
Don’t worry…Be happy
But the good news is the brain is not a static thing. It is very ‘plastic’ when it comes to learning and dealing with new experiences. With patience and a more-supportive classroom environment, students can be shown how to make other associations between math and emotions, but this time ones that mitigate MA.
 Brain areas associated with numbers and math, 2018, doi.org/10.1016/j.dcn.2017.08.002
 Mental math and the fine-tuning of emotions. Sandra Ackerman, 2017, Dana Foundation Blog, dana.org/article/mental-math-and-the-fine-tuning-of-emotions/
 Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex, 2013, Simmon Moss, and Wikipedia [ref 8]
 Neurostructural correlate of math anxiety in the brains of children. Karin Kucian et al, Translational Psychiatry, 2018; 8:273. Doi: 10.1038/s41398-018-0320-6. And www.ncbi.nlm.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6288142/
 The stress-learning connection: Manage an Amygdala Hijack in three steps. The Brain Health Magazine, 2022, thebrainhealthmagzine.com/hormones/the-stress-learning-connection-manage-an-amygdala-hijack-in-three-steps/
 Epigenetics and Anxiety – The relationship between genes and stress-related disorders, 2020, blog.trudiagnostic.com/epigenetics-and-anxiety/
 MAOA-LPR polymorphism and math anxiety: A marker of genetic susceptibility to social influences in girls, 2022, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1516(1), DOI:10.1111/nyas.14814.
 Who’s afraid of math? Genetics plays a role but researchers say environment still key, 2014, geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/03/19/genetics-plays-a-role-in-math-anxiety/
 www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/06/210607161149.htm and DOI:10.1073/pnas.2013155118