Math: Painful? Apparently so, for real

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This Wired science article is the latest in a series of reports I’ve seen going around the web lately, saying that for some people, the anticipation of doing even simple math activates the same regions of the brain that are responsible for physical pain. So math anxiety isn’t just something that people make up to make themselves feel better (not that I ever really thought it was); it has an actual neurological basis.

I’ll be honest, I just don’t get math anxiety. I know I have a bit of a tendency to act like it doesn’t exist; for example, this entire blog is meant for people who actually look forward to digging into the math (or other source material) behind an interesting result. I make no apologies for the fact that I use a ton of math here. But this is all just because I would actually like math anxiety not to exist. Whether it’s a matter of education, or cultural bias, or some sort of mental condition that could be treated with drugs or therapy (I sort of doubt that last case, but who knows), I hope that someday we can live in a world where math and critical thinking are skills as familiar as walking. And if we’re going to make any progress toward that goal, it starts with understanding why some people have the trouble they do. That’s why this research is important.

While I’m on the topic, a bonus paragraph: this new research suggests that maybe I’m not as unfamiliar with math anxiety as I thought. But for me, it’s not math, it’s exercise. Most people I know seem to enjoy working out, but for me it’s just painful and miserable. (Well, mostly.) From this perspective, math sounds an awful lot like actual physical exercise. Think about it: In both cases, some people have a talent for it and some don’t, but you can overcome a lack of talent (to some extent) with practice. There are simple tasks for beginners — arithmetic in one case, pushups and situps in the other— and advanced tasks for people who are talented and experienced — calculus, complex analysis; a 26-mile marathon. I can definitely attest that both are tiring! This is surely true no matter what your skill level is. But when you hear elite athletes talking about how they’re able to keep going through an athletic test of endurance like a marathon, you’ll often hear them talking about how they’ve just trained themselves to push through the pain, to the point where it’s almost a familiar companion, rather than something to be afraid of. With math, it’s the same way. Being good at math doesn’t make it not confusing, but you learn to work through that confusion, to consider it a natural part of your mental quest, and not a sign that you should stop.