Thought of maths causes physical pain

23:42, Oct 31 2012
ANXIETY ADDS UP: Researchers say the thought of doing maths stimulates physical pain.

If you’ve ever felt in physical pain leading up to a maths question or exam and put it down to that possibly dodgy dinner you had the night before, then think again. Turns out maths really can hurt.

University of Chicago researchers have discovered the fear of maths is linked to the experience of physical pain.

You don’t even have to start on a maths assignment – just the thought of it is enough to trigger pain, lead author Ian Lyons and his colleagues said in their paper: ‘Fear of math can hurt: Anxiety about math activates pain networks in brain’, published today in online journal PLOS ONE.

The researchers studied individuals who experienced high levels of anxiety when confronted with maths tasks. They discovered there was increased activity in the region of their brains which is associated with the physical sensation of pain.

The activity in that area of their brain increased the more anxious they became.

“Interestingly, this relation was not seen during math performance, suggesting that it is not that maths itself hurts; rather, the anticipation of maths is painful,” the researchers said.


“We provide the first neural evidence indicating the nature of the subjective experience of math-anxiety.”

Subjects were tested in a range of experiments, one which included providing them with maths-related situations such as ‘receiving a textbook’ and ‘walking to maths classes’.

Their brain activity was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging or functional MRI, which detects associated changes in blood flow.

Previous research has established connections between psychological stress, including break ups or social rejection, and physical pain.

The authors of this study say their findings show that pain isn’t necessarily always associated with a stressful event, but can rather be caused by the thought-process of anticipating an anxiety-provoking event.