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Math hurts your brain -- literally

Can physical pain be the reason you’re not good with numbers?

By Christine L. Chen Nov 9, 2012 6:46PM

Watching the election coverage this week and trying to calculate Electoral College votes, I got a little bit of a headache. Now I know why. It had less to do with the vote itself and more to do with making sense of the numbers. 

Cultura/Luc Beziat/Getty Images

According to a new study from the brainy people at the University of Chicago, those of us who stress out over doing math – but don’t suffer from general anxiety – can feel actual, physical pain when presented with a math problem. This could also explain why I was so exhausted by high school math classes. Maybe I was in pain, and it wiped me out.

Apparently, just preparing to do a math problem can trigger the part of the brain that registers pain. Researchers used an MRI machine to look at brain activity and found that the area of the brain that controls our response to threat and senses pain in our bodies is significantly more active at just the prospect of doing a math problem.  

According to study author Sian Beilock: “For someone who has math anxiety, the anticipation of doing math prompts a similar brain reaction as when they experience pain—say, burning one’s hand on a hot stove.”

Nice. Is there something Pavlovian about all this? I got pretty good grades in math, but it was by far my least favorite subject. After reading this math/brain research, I wonder if  math caused me pain, which made me reluctant to do it, leading me to believe I wasn’t good at it and ultimately steered me to write for a living instead. 

I asked my husband, an engineer type, about his memories of math classes in school. He loved math and excelled at it. He didn’t stress, and he doesn’t stress about any kind of calculation today. In fact, he even gets a bit of a “high” from number-related problems.  “If the problem is particularly hard,” he said. That’s why my other half is the one who manages the joint tax return. 

Now that I think about it, I do try to avoid doing daily math, such as splitting the restaurant check among friends (I let someone else do it), figuring out currency exchange rates abroad (I look for signs) or calculating how much of a discount I’m getting at a store (I ask someone). The good news: people like me (and maybe you) can generally avoid the headache and any math-related pain, because today, there are apps for all that.

Now the question remains – which came first: the pain that caused me stress or the stress that caused me pain? These are the types of things writers like to consider – not numbers.  That said, it seems the Electoral College gives pretty much everyone a headache.

Related Links:

Boys’ impulsiveness may add up to an edge in math

Brain myths busted

Neurobiology of Pavlovian fear conditioning


120Comments
Nov 9, 2012 10:26PM
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I don't feel pain, I just feel dumb.
Nov 9, 2012 10:09PM
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I love math, there is a true beauty in numbers. I love statistics, and use algebra on a daily basis. My husband won't even balance the check book as it gives him hives. I will now stop making fun of him, and just enjoy 
Nov 9, 2012 10:28PM
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I hope my 13 year old doesn't see this article. 
Nov 9, 2012 10:17PM
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See Mom I TOLD you math hurt! This explains why I did so poorly in math class until I was in grades high enough to use that magical invention - the calculator. (BTW _ I am an accountant! LOL)
Nov 9, 2012 10:26PM
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The comment about certain races not grasping fundamental math was brought to us by someone whose race is ignoramus
Nov 9, 2012 10:17PM
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Math can be fun.  However, I did not get heavily into higher math.  Got an A in Algebra in high school, a B in Geometry and a C in Algrebra 2.  So - I didn't fash myself and go on higher.  I worked in a bank type business for years.  I also do a lot of math in my head.   Once surprised a checker in a grocery store.  Went to the store for my boss and, including lottery tickets, had a bill for over $1k.  Told the checker before she told me the total, what it was within about 10 cents.  She asked how in the world I accomplished that.  I said - over 45 years of practice.
Nov 9, 2012 10:12PM
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Well, ****--I could have told anybody, and did, the same damn thing when I was doing math in grade school, it hurts.
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