Among industrialized nations, Americans have the worst relationship with arithmetic and math. According to a 2015 Pew Research study, in a field of 72 countries, American 15-year-olds placed 39th in math scores.
Those 15-year-olds grow up to be American adults who cannot do simple math.
A research study in the journal Education finds that 71% of Americans cannot calculate gas mileage, 58% cannot figure a tip, and 78% do not have the skills to compute loan interest. How do people manage these routine calculations when they have no idea how to do them? Research suggests they estimate — and “pad” their estimation. In other words, they overpay. Imagine how much money they lose by avoiding simple math.
Babies only a few months old have (very) basic math skills. By the time these babies are old enough to enter college, however, 80% will report math anxiety to researchers. What’s causing the math anxiety epidemic?
The research is clear: It’s us — parents and teachers.
In one sense, math anxiety is contagious. Parents and teachers who are anxious about math easily pass that anxiety onto their children and students.
For example, researchers writing in the Journal of Cognition and Development found that parents suffering from math anxiety tended to have children who also suffered from math anxiety — but only if parents helped the children with their homework. The more the parents helped, the more severe their children’s math anxiety became.
In fact, researchers find that more than half of those reporting math anxiety recall it beginning with a specific incident of public humiliation in school or at home. For example: going blank in front of the class, being called stupid when having difficulty with a problem, or having a teacher or parent turn their back in frustration when trying to help. Experiences like these result in “social pain.” It’s the same sort of pain one experiences after a romantic break up, suspension from work or school, or when bullied by others.
When social pain related to math happens often enough, anything associated with math — numbers, formulas, even the sight of a math textbook — generates fear and dread. It’s automatic, and when it happens, our brain goes into defense mode. A threat response. One of the major features of the threat response is hypervigilance — scanning the environment with all our senses to locate the source of the threat.
Normal brain function stops at this point, and one of the first things to go is working memory.
Working memory (or short-term memory) is our ability to hold discrete bits of information in our mind at once. Most cognitive researchers believe we can’t remember more than four numerical digits at a time. This is why telephone companies present ten-digit phone numbers as two groups of three digits and one of four digits, and financial institutions break up account numbers into groups of four. By creating “chunks” of data points, we combine numbers into portions we can keep in our conscious memory.
Math is an exercise in working memory. For example, when we multiply 23 x 2 in our mind, we first multiply 2 x 3 and hold the product of six in our working memory while multiplying 2 x 2 for a product of 4. Then, we put the four and six together for a solution of 46.
In his book, The Emotional Brain, neurologist Joe LeDoux explains what happens in our brains when we experience anxiety. When we encounter any situation — say, a math quiz — working memory holds the associated image. It simultaneously searches our long-term memory for a match.
If strong negative emotions are associated with that image, it activates the amygdala (our brain’s fear center). Immediately, a neurological chain of events is set in motion. Neural circuits activate the executive functioning area of the prefrontal cortex, and working memory immediately shifts to assessing the environment for threats. At the same time, the amygdala sends a signal to the thalamus releasing stress hormones that initiate a fight or flight instinct. Can you imagine working an algebra problem while trying to keep your fight or flight response under control?
Anxiety compromises working memory in such a way that even basic arithmetic becomes a major challenge. It’s important to remember that all of this is happening in a social context — a classroom. The fear response we experience in social situations is similar to the response we’d experience if we were about to be the victim of an auto accident.
Neurologist Matthew Lieberman has written a wonderfully informative book about social relationships and the brain, Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect. In a fascinating series of fMRI experiments, Lieberman finds that the same brain structure involved in processing physical pain also process the pain of social rejection. Incredibly, he discovered that over the counter pain remedies (Tylenol, for example) diminish the sensation of social pain, measured both by subjective reports from participants and objective measures of brain activity.
Roy Baumeister’s experiments examining the relationship between social pain and cognitive functioning are especially revealing, describes Lieberman. Baumeister gave some of his subjects a fake assessment indicating they would never marry and would likely have few friends. He then used IQ and GRE questions to detect changes in intellectual functioning. Subjects led to believe they would lead socially isolated lives scored about 20% lower on IQ questions and 30% lower on GRE questions than subjects who did not receive a prediction of social rejection.
If a subtle suggestion of social rejection has such a dramatic effect on cognition, imagine the effect years of math anxiety must have. Isolated episodes of embarrassment and humiliation associated with arithmetic can have devastating effects on the ability to do math many years after they occur.
Procrastinating and rushing though calculations — the two biggest reasons for poor math performance — are just ways to avoid the pain, not signs of character flaws like laziness or apathy. These are also behaviors that frustrate teachers the most. But when you think about it from the point of view of the person with math anxiety, they make perfect sense. For them, math is painful. It hurts. Exposure to any sort of math related activity recalls memories of social pain — verbal abuse by a teacher in front of classmates, or the very public humiliation of blanking out at the blackboard.
So how can we help people struggling with math anxiety? One way is to educate our children and students about common math myths.