Nightmare math

What can specific anxiety do to the developing brain? This question was asked by PD Dr. Karin Kucian and colleagues from the University Children’s Hospital. In their Nature Translational Psychiatry paper they report the remarkable finding that math anxiety is associated with structural alterations in the brain.

We often need good mathematical skills in professional and social life. However, mathematics is frequently associated with stress and frustration. Confrontation with tasks that require mathematical knowledge triggers anxiety in many children. Math anxiety is not only associated with immediate negative emotional reactions, but also has negative long-term consequences for career choice, employment, and professional success.
Although the specific causes and effects are unclear, there is conclusive proof that math anxiety interferes with mathematical performance and seems to be particularly common in children with math learning disabilities, such as developmental dyscalculia. Moreover, there is a growing body of evidence that stressful events can affect brain structure. Therefore, the goal of the present study was to examine the relationship between math anxiety on grey matter brain volume in normally achieving children and children with developmental dyscalculia.

Math anxiety induces changes in the brain
The results demonstrate for the first time that math anxiety in children is associated with alterations in brain volume. In particular, the right amygdala volume was reduced in individuals with higher math anxiety, which represents the key area in our brain for the processing of negative emotions such as fear, stress and anxiety.
On a behavioral level, the researchers observed that math anxiety is widespread in children with and without dyscalculia. However, children with dyscalculia show higher levels of math anxiety. Moreover, the findings confirm that math anxiety has detrimental effects on mathematical performance, particularly on arithmetical tasks that require working memory and this is because anxiety usurps working memory resources.

Teachers should be aware
The researchers conclude that the results of their study add strong evidence that mathematical anxiety can be present at the beginning of formal schooling and that it not only hinders children from developing mathematical abilities, but is also associated with alterations in brain structures related to fear processing. “This growing knowledge emphasizes the far-reaching outcome emotional factors can have on mathematical cognition”, Karin Kucian said. “We encourage both educators and researchers to consider math anxiety to prevent negative long-term consequences on school achievement and quality of life, especially in children with developmental dyscalculia.”

Kucian K, McCaskey U, O’Gorman Tuura R, von Aster M (2018) Neurostructural Correlate of Math Anxiety in the Brain of Children. Nature Translational Psychiatry, 8: 273. Pdf