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Doing Math Really Does Make Your Head Hurt, Says Science

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Can trying to solve math problems actually cause you physical pain? According to a new study, the answer is a resounding yes. Well, sort of.

Researchers from the University of Chicago recently discovered that a person attempting to solve math problems might experience physically pain. However, according to their findings, rather than the math problem itself, it is more the anticipation of the equation that actually inflicts the painful duress.

To come to this conclusion, researchers hooked 28 individuals to MRIs and examined the contrast between high-math-anxiety individuals and low-math-anxiety individuals. Both groups were challenged to determine if problems like “(12-4)+19=25″ were accurate, or whether or a series of letters, like “retupmoc,” would correctly spell a word if the series were reversed. Researchers implemented a color and shape system to give participants notice as to what type of problem they would be asked to solve next: a yellow circle for math problem, and a blue square for word problem.

What they found was that part of the brain associated with delivering pain (the posterior insula) was activated each time participants in the high-math-anxiety group saw a yellow circle appear on the screen. Interestingly, reaction to that part of the brain subsided after participants began to actually work on the math problem. The same diminishing pain reaction happened in these people when given an indication that they would only be required to solve a word problem.

Researchers say that their findings indicate that anxiety toward math, not the math problem itself, is what causes some people physical pain.

[Medical Daily]

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