Anxiety can literally cut off the working memory needed to learn and to solve problems, according to Judy Willis, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based neurologist, former middle school teacher and author of “Learning to Love Math.”
Stress in the brain
When first taking in a problem, a student processes information through the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, which then prioritizes information going to the prefrontal cortex, the part responsible for the brain’s working memory and critical thinking. During stress, there is more activity in the amygdala than the prefrontal cortex; even as minor a stressor as seeing a frowning face before answering a question can decrease a student’s ability to respond.
“When engaged in mathematical problem-solving, highly math-anxious individuals suffer from intrusive thoughts and ruminations,” said Daniel Ansari, the principal investigator for the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at Canada’s University of Western Ontario. “This takes up some of their processing and working memory. It’s very much as though individuals with math anxiety use up the brainpower they need for the problem” on worrying.
Moreover, a series of experiments at the Mangels Lab of Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory and Attention at Baruch College at the City University of New York suggests this stress reaction may hit hardest the students who might otherwise be the most enthusiastic about math.
Jennifer A. Mangels, the lab’s director, said she tested college students on math in either neutral situations or in ways designed to invoke anxiety, such as mentioning sex stereotypes about math ability to women who were being tested, or telling students that their scores would be used to compare their math ability with others’.
Mangels found not only that students in stressful situations performed worse, but also that stress hit otherwise-promising students the hardest.
In non-stressful tests, the students who sought out more opportunities to learn within the math program had the highest performance. While under stress, those same students performed worse than those who didn’t identify with the subject.
“We’re reducing the diagnostic ability of these tests by having students take them in a stressful situation,” agreed Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago psychology professor.
Dyscalculia and bias
Two problems in a child’s earliest school experiences — one biological, the other social — can build into big math fears later on, experts say.
In a series of studies, Ansari and his Western Ontario colleagues have found that adults with high math anxiety are more likely to have lower-than-typical ability to quickly recognize differences in numerical magnitude, or the number of items in a set, which is considered a form of dyscalculia.