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Math-anxious brains tackle simple problems differently

Research suggests math-savvy people may be better at automating arithmetic

5:33pm, March 27, 2017
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NUMBER NERVOUSNESS People anxious about doing math use certain brain networks differently when doing arithmetic, which suggests they might use different problem-solving strategies than people who aren’t anxious about math.

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SAN FRANCISCO — When faced with simple math problems, people who get jittery about the subject may rely more heavily on certain brain circuitry than math-savvy people do. The different mental approach could help explain why people with math anxiety struggle on more complicated problems, researchers reported March 25 at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society’s annual meeting.

While in fMRI machines, adults with and without math anxiety evaluated whether simple arithmetic problems, such as 9+2=11, were correct or incorrect. Both groups had similar response times and accuracy on the problems, but brain scans turned up differences.

Specifically, in people who weren’t anxious about math, lower activation of the frontoparietal attention network was linked to better performance. That brain network is involved in working memory and problem solving.  Math-anxious people showed no correlation between performance and frontoparietal network activity.

People who used the circuit less were probably getting ahead by automating simple arithmetic, said Hyesang Chang, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. Because math-anxious people showed more variable brain activity overall, Chang speculated that they might instead be using a variety of computationally demanding strategies. This scattershot approach works fine for simple math, she said, but might get maxed out when the math is more challenging.


H. Chang et al. Simple arithmetic: Not so simple for highly math anxious individuals. Cognitive Neuroscience Society Annual Meeting, San Francisco, March 25, 2017.

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