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A biopsychological perspective to why we love or hate Mathematics.

Mathematics, from the perspectives I have encountered for my entire life, is the subject where, when studied, people feel some of the strongest of emotions; from “I hate Maths so much” to “Maths is so easy, I love it”. As a current A-level Maths and further Maths student (as well as an aspiring Maths university student!), I thought it would be interesting to look into this phenomenon.

Over the years, the term “maths anxiety”, or also called Maths phobia, has grown, and it refers to the anxiety that one feels when doing maths. It is also believed by some that there is a link between Maths and mental disorders, especially seen through mathematicians such as John Nash (who had schizophrenia), Kurt Gödel (hypochondria and iophobia, that is, fear of being poisoned) and Grigori Perelman (depression). Nash himself also implied that maths is the reason for his mental health issues, and that other great mathematicians went through the same. This was also discussed in Karim Lekadir’s article for Inspire the Mind.

For me, in a world that keeps evolving, where life is so unpredictable sometimes, Mathematics keeps me secure, partially because of one of the most essential facts about how this field works: what you learn will always be a fact. It’s virtually impossible to encounter a situation in Mathematics where, as the years go by, something we thought was true gets debunked.

Mathematics is also a subject where you get the chance to engage your brain actively to solve problems. Mathematics for me also represents an abstract world that is completely different from my daily life, and into which I can escape whenever I feel like it.

So it could be argued that Maths forms different reactions and relationships with everybody, from happiness, to anxiety, to mental illness. In this article, I will be exploring why we may respond so differently to maths, what maths anxiety is, and how we can reduce it.

Why do some students perform better at maths than others?

It’s believed by many that some people naturally have a biological advantage in excelling in Maths, and such beliefs could be backed up by a study that took place in Stanford University. The study found large improvements in 24 kids’ aged 8–9 years old maths skills after 8-week one-on-one Maths tutoring sessions, with some students improving more than others. The best predictor of improvement was the volume and structure of the hippocampus (an important memory centre in the brain).

However, one may also argue that although it is naturally easier for some to improve in Maths, the hard work and mindset of a person can outdo any biological disadvantages that they have, related to their hippocampus or their arithmetic processing.

Animals, including humans, have developed the skill of what is called the approximate number system (ANS), which is a way of estimating the quantities of what is around us “as imprecise, noisy mental magnitudes without verbal counting or numerical symbols”; for example, estimating which of two dot arrays contains more dots.

A study on the relationship between our ANS and our Maths performance was carried out by psychologist Elizabeth Brannon of Duke and her colleague Joonkoo Park. Fifty-two adults were recruited to participate in solving multi-digit arithmetic problems, then half of them spent 10 sessions working on their ANS, while the other half were used as a control group. After they were asked to solve some arithmetic problems again, and the half that did the 10 sessions performed much better than the control group, regardless of their different natural skill levels. The overall conclusion made was that the number sense of individuals can improve maths performances, especially arithmetic.

Maths Anxiety

Research from the company Cuemath has found that UK students experience the most Maths anxiety out of 20 participating countries. Some of the main results captured from this are that globally many students believe they cannot do Maths (33%), and that female students struggle with Maths anxiety more than male students do. The results reveal that it’s common for students to stress over Maths studies.

In recent years the child mental health crisis in the UK has become an increasing concern, with almost 20% of students in the classroom struggling with mental health problems. While exact figures of UK students experiencing conditions such as anxiety and depression are unknown, the same study suggests stress and low self-esteem are commonplace, increasing the risk of mental health problems. Although there are many complex factors contributing to young people’s mental health, and Maths is clearly not the root of all problems, many young people find Maths to elevate feelings of low self-esteem.

How can we shed a positive light on Maths and reduce maths anxiety?

While it brings anxiety to some, there are many positives to engaging in maths. Mathematics can boost brain power, and engaging with mentally stimulating activities such as logic puzzles and problem-solving also reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Another study by researchers at Stanford University attempted to understand the neural mechanisms behind academic achievement in children. They found that having a positive attitude towards Maths was associated with increased engagement of the hippocampus during the performance of arithmetic problems and that this was then associated with higher academic achievement in Maths. The study mentioned earlier concerning our ANS also raises the possibility that interventions aimed at the ANS could benefit children and adults who struggle with Maths.

A large study from 2018, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), involved over 600,000 students across 78 countries and discovered that there is a positive correlation between your mindset and performance. It was found that students who disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “Your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much” scored 32 points higher in reading than those who agreed or strongly agreed, even after the socio-economic backgrounds of the students and schools considered.

Overall, there is no single solution for combating Maths anxiety, but strategies can be used to support the reduction of Maths anxiety such as mindful and diaphragmatic breathing as a step towards feeling physically relaxed, addressing and erasing unjustified beliefs that one can never succeed in Maths, writing thoughts on a journal and most importantly, building a positive mindset.

Through a positive mentality and other personal strategies, anyone can succeed in it.


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