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Maths Fear Stops Brain

Maths Fear Stops Brain

By Emma Norman

"Maths test." Just hearing those two small words is enough for some of us to suddenly develop a nervous eye twitch, break out into a sweat or worse still get full-blown heebie-jeebies.

Now, once again, the wonderful world of science has delved into one the world’s most common and traumatic ailments and revealed its terrifying secrets.

At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science last week, scientists suggested what we all knew in our hearts: that worrying about how you’ll perform in a maths test may actually contribute towards getting a worse test score.

Mark Ashcroft, a psychologist at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said that the feelings of anxiety, such as dread and fear, about the looming test can use up valuable working capacity of the brain. The very same working capacity that is needed to do maths calculations.

The more difficult the calculation, the more working capacity is needed. The more difficult the calculation, the more panic that is probably involved. Arghhhhhhh. And that’s not all; worries over maths can also consume working memory stores too. We’re doomed!

Get the lavender oil, camomile tea, soothing music and candles at the ready. Practise that deep breathing routine. Paper bag anyone?

However, this could be good news or bad news depending on how you look at it – which, I suspect, will depend on whether you are just about to sit a maths paper after having spent weeks preparing for it, or whether you’ve already sat the exam and are now looking for a scapegoat for your less-than-pleasing results.

The causes behind the dreaded maths anxiety are not known; however, Ashcroft says once the anxiety is overcome, your maths proficiency will be fully restored. So there is good news after all, math anxiety is not a fatal blow to your future. Phew.

Emma's wondering why maths is so much more frightening than other subjects. If you think you know why, tell us using the form below.

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Image: Javier Zubiri

Your Say:

As a musician I would say it's exactly the same mechanism as the part of performance anxiety that causes one to walk on stage, look at the music on the stand and experience a complete block on the information contained therein. As in "Bloody hell - that looks insanely difficult and I have never seen it in my life before" (this after months of practice and rehearsal).
Amanda Haste

Because it is much the most complex of all subjects, it has more disciplines than all the sciences put together.
Robert Reid

It's terrifying cos everyone else can do it much better.
Heather Wilson


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08 Sep 2010
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