Math problems make more than a few students — and even teachers — sweat, but new brain research is providing insights into the earliest causes of the anxiety so often associated with mathematics.

Mathematics anxiety is more than just disliking math, experts say; someone with math anxiety feels negative emotions when engaging in an activity that requires numerical or math skills. In one forthcoming study, simply suggesting to college students that they would be asked to take a math test triggered a stress response in the hypothalamus of students with high math anxiety.

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.

As part of normal development, children become adept at identifying which of two numbers of items is bigger, but Ansari found that those with high math anxiety were slower and less accurate at that task, and brain scans showed activity different from that of people with low math stress doing the same tasks.

Because understanding numerical magnitude is a foundation for other calculations, Ansari suggests that small, early deficiencies in that area can lead to frustration and negative reactions to math problems over time.

Moreover, math anxiety can become a generational problem, with adults uncomfortable with math passing negative feelings on to their children or students.

Beilock found that female teachers with high anxiety about math affected their students’ math performance and their beliefs about math ability. In a study of a dozen first-grade and five second-grade teachers and their students, researchers found no difference in the performance of boys and girls in math at the beginning of the year. By the end of the school year, however, girls taught by a teacher with high math anxiety started to score lower than boys in math.

That study, and similar ones, highlight a need for more training for parents and teachers on how to conquer their own math fears and avoid passing them to children, Beilock and Ansari said.

“Teacher math anxiety is really an epidemic,” Ansari said. “I think a lot of people go into elementary teaching because they don’t want to teach high school math or science.”

Eugene A. Geist, an associate professor at Ohio University and the author of “Children Are Born Mathematicians,” works with math teachers to create “anxiety-free classrooms” for students. He advises teachers to have students focus on learning mathematics processes, rather than relying on the answer keys in a textbook, which can undermine both their own and the teacher’s confidence in their math skills.

“If I give the answer, you immediately forget about the question. If I don’t give you the answer, you will still have questions and you will be thinking about the problem long after,” he said.

By contrast, constantly referring to an answer key can undermine both students’ and teachers’ confidence in their own math skills, and encourage students to focus on being right over learning.

Likewise, Willis, the California neurologist, said that teachers can help students reduce their fear of participating during math discussions by asking all students to answer every question, using scratch paper or electronic clickers to “bet” on answers, and talking about the problem as a group.

“It helps with wait time [between question and answer], increases participation and decreases mistake fear,” Willis said.

— Education Week