Fear of numbers is the mind killer…

Here’s an interesting article on Math Anxiety — it’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s an interesting topic to revisit every now and then.  Here’s what I think the key sentence is:

Because understanding numerical magnitude is a foundation for other calculations, Mr. Ansari suggests that small, early deficiencies in that area can lead to difficulties, frustration, and negative reactions to math problems over time.

So it starts out small: you’re just a little less adept at counting.   This “deficiency” (I’d like to point out that it has to be compared to some standard to be considered a deficiency, a standard which is something established — perhaps improperly or at least inadvisably — through social behaviors ) then compounds (which is to say, whatever skill is there doesn’t compound as fast as it would if it was larger ex ante) and this leads to all sorts of psychological baggage.  The psychological baggage then causes actual problems in calculation:

During stress, there is more activity in the amygdala than the prefrontal cortex; even as minor a stressor as seeing a frowning face before answering a question can decrease a student’s ability to remember and respond accurately.

“When engaged in mathematical problem-solving, highly math-anxious individuals suffer from intrusive thoughts and ruminations,” said Daniel Ansari, the principal investigator for the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario. “This takes up some of their processing and working memory. It’s very much as though individuals with math anxiety use up the brainpower they need for the problem” on worrying.

It’s a vicious cycle, we are to think.  I can’t help feeling that this article, for all its talk about fixing the classrooms, is an excuse-in-the-making, a reason to say “But it’s not my fault I can’t do math.”  After all, if you fix the classrooms, the thinking seems to go, you won’t need to fix the students.  Because it’s not their fault, right?

Well maybe it’s not.  And maybe it is a good idea not to make a bad situation worse by having all sorts of math bias in the classroom.  But at some level, it doesn’t even matter if it’s the students’ fault or not.  They have a problem, and it’s substantially interfering with their ability to live life to the fullest, by making them ignorant.   Perhaps, and this is a radical suggestion, in addition to trying to minimize the sorts of situations that can perpetuate this vicious cycle, we should also consider that the students should take responsibility and fix themselves.

I am rather inclined to think that there’s a good way to deal with anxieties of all stripes.  Many will think I jest, but I’m entirely serious: The Litany.  It may not work the first time.  It may not work the second.  But Litanies are made to be repeated, over and over again.

Eventually it will take.


  1. While I appreciate the “Dune” reference I don’t think it’s necessary to invoke mystical solutions to mundane problems. Put the responsibility where it belongs, where it historically has not been, and the problem goes away.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I’m not convinced there’s anything “mystical” in convincing yourself to be unafraid. Not everyone can just “be responsible” in the way you suggest — some people need to be shown how to control their fear, that is, given techniques for accomplishing what they can’t accomplish on their own. I’ve never seen anything better for that purpose than prayer (which *is* mystical in a sense but certainly seems to work for at least some of the people who do it) or something like the Litany; though I’m certainly open to suggestions if you have them.

  3. Of course, drilling until arithmatic becomes part of your ‘muscle memory’ would also work.

    Some people are natural drivers at 16. Others can’t figure out the car, shake with fear, panic, drive on the wrong side of the road……So their parents make them KEEP DRIVING UNTIL IT’S NATURAL.

    The difference is that it’s not socially acceptable to be scared of driving to the doctor—it IS socially acceptable to freak out over math. So we drill the drivers but give the math-phobes a free pass.

  4. “it IS socially acceptable to freak out over math”

    Exactly, it is perfectly acceptable for teachers at my school to state their lack of ability in math and science with pride, but for some reason you rarely hear the math and science teachers talking about their deficiencies in other subjects.

    I recently was helping an english teacher administer the state math test. As she went over the sample problem (calculating the volume of a cube) she went off script and said “I hope that is right, I’m not a math person.” It is bad enough that society makes being bad at math acceptable but apparently so do other teachers in the school building.

  5. Why should kids have to convince themselves there’s nothing to be afraid of in the learning of math? There is, or ought to be, someone who’s paid to guide them around the shoals and through the reefs to the understanding that excludes fear. If those folks are doing what they’re paid to do then there shouldn’t be much more then a momentary case of butterflies until some difficult bit of knowledge is made understandable and ignorance dissipated.

  6. In his book _The Math Gene_ Keith Devlin explains in depth where math skills come from in the brain and how they evolved. One of his more interesting points (and it’s a great book, full of insights) is that arithmetic is actually harder for our brains than “real” math, which is abstract symbol manipulation. Our brains are naturally good at symbol manipulation and estimation, but crappy at getting exact results out of arithmetic calculations.

    That said, from the time of Leonardo of Pisa’s book on basic arithmetic with “arabic” numerals in 1202 to about thirty years ago, we managed to just drill arithmetic into our kid’s heads without much problem.

    Robert Heinlein was pretty harsh about it: “Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best, he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear his shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house.”

    Devlin makes it pretty clear that mathematical ability IS our birthright, it’s just that few of us bother to claim it.