Success in mathematics is strongly linked to activity in a network of brain areas controlling attention and regulating negative emotional reactions, says a new research.
Researchers at the University of Chicago have gained new insights into how some students are successful at overcoming their fear of math, by using brain-imaging technology.
They found that in the highly math anxious students there was a strong link between math success and activity in a network of brain areas in the frontal and parietal lobes involved in controlling attention and regulating negative emotional reactions, which kicked in at the very mention of having to solve a mathematics problem.
"Classroom practices that help students focus their attention and engage in the math task at hand may help eliminate the poor performance brought on by math anxiety," Beilock, a leading expert on mathematics anxiety, said.
The study, which has been funded by the National Science Foundation, began by administering a questionnaire to a group of Chicago students and students answered questions about how anxious they felt when registering for a math course, walking to a challenging math class or being handed a math textbook.
Lyons, a Ph.D student, and Beilock then invited a group of students, who were especially anxious about math-related tasks, to have their brains scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they performed difficult math problems and a similarly difficult spelling task and a group of non-math-anxious students was selected as a control group.
By analysing the brain responses during the cue and problems separately, the researchers found that for the highly math-anxious, there was a strong connection between math performance and activity in a network of brain areas in the frontal and parietal lobes.
The more the frontal and parietal regions were activated in math-anxious students, the more their math performance looked like the non-math-anxious control group.
Highly math-anxious students, who showed little activation in the concerned brain regions when preparing to do math, got only 68 percent of math problems correct, but those who showed the strongest activation got 83 percent correct as compared to 88 percent for low math-anxious controls.
The study found that for the highly math-anxious students who performed well on the math task, the brain activity that started during the anticipation phase initiated a cascade of brain activity during completion of the math task itself.
"Essentially, overcoming math anxiety appears to be less about what you know and more about convincing yourself to just buckle down and get to it," he said.
"But if you wait till the math exam has already started to deal with your anxiety, it's already too late," Lyons added.
The study has been published in the 20th October issue of the journal Cerebral Cortex.