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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

Nov 10, 2012 1:05AM
I Have a BSci in Math and lots of heavy Math Physics courses. Was Honors Math Student in High School. Got 719 on College Boards in Math under the old system. And yes, I concurr, Math hurts your brain. Problem is it's also about the best mental self-discipline there is. Funny thing is that in a 30 year professional career mostly in Engineering and Software development I never used any math higher tha what I had learned in 10th Grade. Many Thanks to Mrs. Feldman at Kinloch Jr High in Miami for being that motivating teacher.
Nov 10, 2012 1:04AM
That's what I was trying to tell my teachers, but they didn't go for it, they said I'd first have to HAVE a brain....
Nov 10, 2012 12:50AM

This explains why stupid people voted for Obama. In regards to the rich paying more taxes they can't understand the basic concept that X% of a large sum of money is more than a smaller sum times X%. They also can't understand that the Bush tax cuts resulted in higher tax revenues even though taxes were lower.


"oh my brain hurts. It must be the republicans' fault because I have to do some basic math to understand what they are saying"

Nov 10, 2012 12:39AM
That's what I like- good scientific end-all-conjecture  proof.
Nov 10, 2012 12:37AM
I tried to tell my parents this a long time ago.
Nov 10, 2012 12:37AM
Math was always easy for me. Have a care, it is a human convention, not a natural fact.
Nov 10, 2012 12:34AM
I do well in math with money or if I have to figure out messurements; but when it comes to math problems I get all fuzzy...
Nov 10, 2012 12:28AM
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