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October 2017 | Volume 5 | Article 57 | 1

NEUROSCIENCE

Published: 17 October 2017

doi:10.3389/frym.2017.00057

kids.frontiersin.org

WHO IS AFRAID OF MATH? WHAT IS MATH

ANXIETY? AND WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?

H. Moriah Sokolowski and Daniel Ansari*

University of Western Ontario, London, ON, Canada

Mathematics is a necessary skill that people use throughout their lives,

such as when they travel, use money, or keep track of time. Therefore,

mathematics is an important skill to learn at school. Unfortunately, many

children and adults feel stressed and anxious when they have to do math.

People who experience feelings of stress when faced with math-related

situations may be experiencing what is called “math anxiety.” Math anxiety

affects many people and is related to poor math ability in school and later

during adulthood. Researchers have studied how math anxiety ﬁrst appears,

what is happening in the brain when people experience math anxiety, and

how to best help people who are suffering with math anxiety.

Have you ever felt stressed and anxious when your math teacher asks you a

question? Or when you are doing your math homework? If so, you might have

experienced what is called math anxiety. If you have experienced math anxi-

ety, you are not alone. Many people feel extremely nervous when faced with

a situation that requires them to do basic mathematics. Math anxiety is more

than just feeling nervous about doing math. Nervousness is a sensible reac-

tion to a situation that is actually scary. In contrast, anxiety might not make

sense. is means that a person may feel anxious even though he or she knows

MATH ANXIETY

The feeling of being

extremely nervous when

faced with doing basic

mathematics.

October 2017 | Volume 5 | Article 57 | 2kids.frontiersin.org

Sokolowski and Ansari What Is Math Anxiety?

that there is really no reason to feel anxious. Also, anxiety can cause physical

symptoms, such as a racing heart or sweating. Usually, people who have math

anxiety believe that they are bad at math and because of this, they do not like

math. ese feelings lead them to avoid situations in which they have to do

math. Children with math anxiety oen have poor math skills [1]. Adults with

math anxiety oen have trouble with math in their careers and everyday life

[2]. Adults with math anxiety are less likely to show interest, enter, and suc-

ceed in careers relating to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Because math anxiety aects many people and is related to poor math skills,

it is important to understand when and how math anxiety rst appears, what

is happening in the brain when people are feeling anxious about math, and

how to best help people with math anxiety.

WHEN AND HOW DOES MATH ANXIETY FIRST

APPEAR?

Until recently, scientists and educators thought that math anxiety rst appears

when children begin to learn complicated mathematics (such as algebra). is

would mean that young children (who do not yet do complicated math) do not

experience math anxiety. However, recent research has shown that some children

as young as 6years old say that they feel anxious about math. A team of researchers

asked 154 children in grades 1 and 2 questions like, “how do you feel when tak-

ing a big test in your math class?” [3] e children had to indicate how nervous

they felt by pointing to a position on a scale, ranging from a very nervous face

on the le to a calm face on the right. (See Figure 1 for a picture of the scale.)

Aer answering these questions, the children took a math test that measured

their math abilities. ese researchers found that almost half of the children who

participated in the study said that they were at least somewhat nervous about

doing math [3]. Also, children with higher math anxiety got worse scores on the

math test. is research tells us that math anxiety and the relationship between

math anxiety and math ability develops when children are very young.

Researchers are also interested in how math anxiety develops. Although

research has shown that math anxiety and math abilities are related [1], no

study so far has been able to tell us which comes rst. In other words, we do

not know if being bad at math causes math anxiety, or if having math anxiety

makes people bad at math.

FIgUrE 1

FIGURE 1

Children used a scale that

looks like this to show

how nervous they would

feel about math-related

situations (for example, if

they were asked “how do

you feel when taking a big

test in your math class?”)

by pointing to a position

on the scale.

(This image is based on

the Children’s Math

Anxiety Questionnaire

found at http://

spatiallearning.org/media/

silc_pdfs/resources/

testsandinstruments/

tandi-new/Childrens_

Math_Anxiety_

Questionnaire.pdf.)

October 2017 | Volume 5 | Article 57 | 3kids.frontiersin.org

Sokolowski and Ansari What Is Math Anxiety?

Researchers have two ideas about how math anxiety might develop. One

idea is that children who struggle with learning numbers when they are

very young are more likely to develop math anxiety when they start going

to school. is idea has not yet been tested in children. Another idea is

that math anxiety develops in children who experience certain kinds of

social situations that inuence the child’s thoughts or feelings. is means

that the child’s emotions, opinions, or behaviors are aected by things that

other people say or do. One study that gives an example of this showed

that teachers with high math anxiety were more likely to have students

with poorer math achievement at the end of the school year [4]. is study

suggests that the way the teacher acted somehow aected the math ability

of the students. Although researchers have not yet answered the question

of what comes rst, math ability or math anxiety, there have been many

important discoveries that have given us hints about when and how math

anxiety appears.

WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE BRAIN WHEN A

PERSON IS EXPERIENCING MATH ANXIETY?

To better understand how math anxiety develops and how to help people

who suer with it, we need to understand what is happening in brain while

a person with math anxiety is doing math. One idea is that the human brain

can only process a certain amount of information at a time. A system in

the brain that allows us to process information is called working memory.

Working memory is a part of the human memory system that allows us

to remember and think about several things at the same time. is skill is

very important for doing math. For example, if a teacher reads out a math

problem, the student must hold all numbers in his or her mind, consider

the steps needed to solve the problem, and write out the answer at the

same time. Researchers think that maybe, when people feel anxious, the

math anxiety that they feel is using up some of their working memory, so

they do not have enough working memory le to solve the math problem.

Maybe the working memory that is being used for the anxiety would have

been used for solving the math problem if those people did not feel so anx-

ious [3]. In other words, math anxiety causes students to think and worry

about how afraid they feel of math, which occupies the working memory

resources that they would otherwise use to do the math problems. is idea

that math anxiety uses working memory has been supported by research

studies. Importantly, researchers have reported that children who have a

high level of working memory do better on math tests than children with

a low level of working memory.

Researchers have also examined how hard dierent parts of the brain are

working while children with either high or low math anxiety solve challenging

math problems [5]. ese researchers asked a group of 7- to 9-year-old children

WORKING

MEMORY

A part of the memory

system that is used to

remember and hold

information in your mind

so you can use it when

doing activities.

October 2017 | Volume 5 | Article 57 | 4kids.frontiersin.org

Sokolowski and Ansari What Is Math Anxiety?

with and without math anxiety to do some math problems while they were in

a device called a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner [5]. An MRI

scanner is a machine that can be used to measure how hard each region of the

brain is working during a specic task using a tool called functional magnetic

resonance imaging (fMRI). (See Figure 2 for a picture of an MRI scanner.) is

measurement is called “brain activation.” If a brain region is working hard,

there will be more brain activation. ese researchers found that a part of the

brain called the amygdala is more activated (working harder) in children with

high math anxiety than in children with low math anxiety. Also, in children

with high math anxiety, the areas of the brain that deal with working memory

and mathematical processing (called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and

the intraparietal sulcus) are less activated (working less hard) compared with

those brain areas in children who have low math anxiety [5]. e amygdala

is a small almond-shaped structure in the lower middle part of the brain and

it is important for experiencing and processing emotions, including fear and

anxiety. e dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is a larger part of the brain located

at the very front of the brain, and it is involved in many complicated behav-

iors, such as planning and decision making. e intraparietal sulcus is a brain

region near the top of the brain that is important for mathematics and paying

attention. (See Figure 3 for a picture of where these brain regions are located.)

So, overall, this study suggests that when children solve math problems, those

children with high math anxiety activate brain regions involved in anxiety,

while those children with low math anxiety activate brain regions that are

involved with solving math problems.

HOW CAN WE HELP PEOPLE WITH MATH ANXIETY?

One of the main goals of understanding what causes math anxiety and how

math anxiety aects the brain is to nd ways to help people with math anxiety

and ultimately to prevent it from happening. Some researchers have created

MAGNETIC

RESONANCE

IMAGING (MRI)

An MRI is a machine that

uses a strong magnet to

create pictures of your

brain.

FUNCTIONAL

MAGNETIC

RESONANCE

IMAGING (FMRI)

A tool that measures

which brain regions are

activated while you

complete different

activities in an MRI

scanner, such as adding

and subtracting.

BRAIN

ACTIVATION

A measure of how hard a

region of the brain is

working during a speciﬁc

task. If a brain region is

working hard, there will be

more brain activation.

FIgUrE 2

FIGURE 2

This is a picture of an MRI

scanner.

An MRI scanner is a large

donut-shaped magnet

that often has a tunnel in

the center. The person

being studied is placed on

a comfortable table that

slides into the tunnel. The

person then stays very still

while the MRI scanner

works with a computer to

produce clear black-and-

white images of the brain.

These images can be

taken while people do

activities to show which

areas of the brain are

activated.

October 2017 | Volume 5 | Article 57 | 5kids.frontiersin.org

Sokolowski and Ansari What Is Math Anxiety?

tools to help people with math anxiety. ese tools are called interventions.

For example, researchers have made interventions based on research showing

that writing down thoughts and feelings beforehand can make people feel

less nervous when taking tests. Researchers thought that if children wrote

down their thoughts and feelings, those feelings would not occupy working

memory while the children were completing a math test. So, the researchers

did an intervention where they asked children with math anxiety to write

about their math-related worries. ese researchers found that, when students

wrote about their math-related worries, their math test scores improved [6].

A dierent group of researchers showed that if college students with math

anxiety did some breathing exercises to calm them down before a math test,

they felt more calm and their scores on the test improved [7]. Together, these

intervention studies provide scientic evidence for ways that we can help

people with math anxiety. is research is very promising because it tells us

that people with math anxiety can be helped—they are not stuck with math

anxiety for life.

CONCLUSION

Since we know that people with math anxiety face challenges in their math

classes, careers, and everyday lives, many dierent researchers have worked

to learn more about math anxiety. Researchers continue to make progress in

this area. Research on math anxiety has shown that it develops early, and that

it is related to both social situations and brain processes like working mem-

ory. Also, individuals with math anxiety show more brain activation in brain

regions involved with negative emotions, and less brain activation in brain

regions involved with mathematical thinking. Researchers have also started to

test possible interventions that seem to help individuals suering with math

anxiety. However, there is still a lot of work to be done to discover how math

anxiety rst appears, what causes only some people to have it, and how we can

help people who have math anxiety. For now, whether you are experiencing

math anxiety or not, talk to your fellow students and your teachers about math

INTERVENTION

A tool or program that is

given to people with the

goal of helping them

improve or get better at a

skill.

FIgUrE 3

FIGURE 3

This picture shows the

brain regions that are

more activated (working

harder) and the brain

regions that are less

activated (working less

hard) in individuals with

high math anxiety when

they do math problems.

October 2017 | Volume 5 | Article 57 | 6kids.frontiersin.org

Sokolowski and Ansari What Is Math Anxiety?

anxiety. It is important to have conversations about your emotional reactions

to math because this is the rst step toward helping to reduce the potentially

harmful eects of math anxiety.

REFERENCES

1. Wu, S. S., Barth, M., Amin, H., Malcarne, V., and Menon, V. 2012. Math anxiety in

second and third graders and its relation to mathematics achievement. Front.

Psychol. 3:1–11. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00162

2. Ma, X. 1999. A meta-analysis of the relationship between anxiety toward

mathematics and achievement in mathematics. J. Res. Math. Educ. 30:520–40.

doi:10.2307/749772

3. Ramirez, G., Gunderson, E. A., Levine, S. C., and Beilock, S. L. 2013. Math anxiety,

working memory, and math achievement in early elementary school. J. Cogn. Dev.

14:187–202. doi:10.1080/15248372.2012.664593

4. Beilock, S. L., Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., and Levine, S. C. 2010. Female

teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci.

U.S.A. 107:1860–3. doi:10.1073/pnas.0910967107

5. Young, C. B, Wu, S. S., and Menon, V. 2012. The neurodevelopmental basis of

math anxiety. Psychol. Sci. 23:492–501. doi:10.1177/0956797611429134

6. Park, D., Ramirez, G., and Beilock, S. L. 2014. The role of expressive writing in

math anxiety. J. Exp. Psychol. Appl. 20:103–11. doi:10.1037/xap0000013

7. Brunyé, T. T., Mahoney, C. R., Giles, G. E., Rapp, D. N., Taylor, H. A., and Kanarek,

R. B. 2013. Learning to relax: evaluating four brief interventions for overcoming the

negative emotions accompanying math anxiety. Learn. Individ. Differ. 27:1–7.

doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2013.06.008

SUbmItted: 29 March 2017; Accepted: 25 September 2017;

PUblIshed onlIne: 17 October 2017.

EDITED BY: Robert T. Knight, University of California, Berkeley, United States

CItatIon: Sokolowski H.M and Ansari D (2017) Who Is Afraid of Math? What Is Math

Anxiety? And What Can You Do about It? Front. Young Minds 5:57. doi:10.3389/

frym.2017.00057

conﬂIct of Interest STATEMENT: The authors declare that the research was

conducted in the absence of any commercial or ﬁnancial relationships that could be

construed as a potential conﬂict of interest.

CopYrIght © 2017 Sokolowski and Ansari. This is an open-access article distributed

under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution

or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are

credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted

academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply

with these terms.

October 2017 | Volume 5 | Article 57 | 7kids.frontiersin.org

Sokolowski and Ansari What Is Math Anxiety?

REVIEWED BY

THE VILLAGE CHARTER SCHOOL, 12–13 YEARS OLD

The Village Charter School serves children from kindergarten through eighth grade in

Trenton, New Jersey, and the students who reviewed this article were in class with Ms.

Brindley Dane, who is the science teacher for grades 7 and 8. The Village Charter School

strives to create a community of active learners, joining efforts with parents and fellow

educators, and the students really enjoyed learning more about their brains! In addition to

Ms. Dane’s hard work in guiding her students through the review process, this review was

also supported by Mark Eastburn of Princeton Public Schools and Dr. Sabine Kastner of the

Princeton Neuroscience Institute.

AUTHORS

H. MORIAH SOKOLOWSKI

I am a Ph.D. student at the University of Western Ontario. I am interested in how young

children learn basic number skills such as how to count, or what “3” means. I want to

understand what happens in the brain while children develop and learn math. I also want to

learn about why some children like math and do well in math, while others feel nervous

about math and ﬁnd it hard. When I am not doing research, I like to sing in a choir, do yoga,

and hang out with my cat.

DA NIEL ANSARI

I am interested in how our brains process numbers and how we use them. We use numbers

all the time. I want to know how the human brain is able to know about numbers and why

some children ﬁnd numbers so hard to understand. What is different about their brains and

why do some people ﬁnd numbers really scary while others love to use them?

*daniel.ansari@uwo.ca