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Math Can be a Pain in the Brain

If you didn't do well in math, it may be because crunching numbers literally hurts your brain.

When neuroscientists look at a human brain under an fMRI machine, while they give them a math problem to do, the pain centers in some people's brains light up. In one such test, the parts of the brain that perceive pain and bodily threats reacted as if the subject's hand had been burned on a hot stove.

On the National Geographic website, Jeremy Berlin quotes researcher Ian Lyons as saying, "The anxiety occurred only during anticipation. When they actually did the math problems, they didn't seem to experience pain. That suggests it's not the math itself that hurts; it's the thought of it that's painful.

"It's purely a psychological interpretation. Math is just numbers on a page--there's no way that they can actually hurt you. (However), people who have high math anxiety typically do badly at math, on everything from SAT scores to laboratory tasks. And they tend to avoid math-related career paths."

Could math phobia be in our GENES? Lyons says, "We don't think so. Math is a relatively recent cultural invention--it's just a few thousand years old. So this response seems to be driven by a person's direct experiences. But if those experiences have been bad, the person interprets the notion of math as being threatening, and in this case, even painful."

If there was ever a math genius, it was Albert Einstein, and parts of his brain have been found to be unlike those of most people and could be related to his extraordinary cognitive abilities. Researchers recently discovered 14 photographs of Einstein's cerebral cortex and compared them to 85 "normal" human brains.

Upon Einstein's death in 1955, his brain was removed and photographed from multiple angles with the permission of his family. Anthropologist Dean Falk says, "Although the overall size and asymmetrical shape of Einstein’s brain were normal, the prefrontal, somatosensory, primary motor, parietal, temporal and occipital cortices were extraordinary. These may have provided the neurological underpinnings for some of his visuospatial and mathematical abilities, for instance."

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As a part-time multilinguist, Italian being my favorite :), Math stopped being painful for me when I started to consider it just another foreign language. For many people, it might as well be!

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