Effects of Mathematics Anxiety on Memory and Problem Solving

Matematik Endişesinin Bellek ve Problem Çözme Üzerine Etkisi

Mathematics anxiety is defined as a sense of stress, anxiety or fear that intervenes in one’s mathematical performance in daily or academic situations. The cognitive results caused by mathematics anxiety are highly-studied topics in the literature. It was observed that individuals with high levels of mathematics anxiety usually have a strong tendency to avoid mathematics, which in turn weakens their mathematical capabilities and affects their career choices (Ashcraft, 2002). Concerns and intrusive thoughts associated with mathematics anxiety are assumed to reduce the resources of working memory needed for cognitively-challenging mathematics tasks (Chang and Beilock, 2016). With that being said, it has not been possible to fully reveal the mental processes that reach the memory representations of mathematical knowledge (Ashcraft, 2001).

Although studies have revealed that mathematics anxiety deteriorates the working memory, there is a low number of studies that properly discuss the neurophysiological processes regarding this type of anxiety. The neurophysiological processes of mathematics anxiety were discussed in a series of studies carried out by Klados et al. from the Applied and Effective Neuroscience team of the Aristotle University.

First Study (Klados et al., 2015)

The first study published from the series analyzed the effects of mathematics anxiety on the event-related potential (ERP) amplitude during the execution of simple arithmetic calculations and working memory tasks. The ERP data were recorded while 32 university students were solving four types of arithmetic problems (one and two-digit addition and multiplication) and performing a working memory task consisting of three levels of difficulty (1, 2 and 3-back task). In the experiment, a reduced ERP was spotted in the frontocentral (between 180-320 ms) and centroparietal (380-420 ms) locations of the individuals having mathematics anxiety, compared to the group with low mathematics anxiety. What’s more, these effects were independent of the task difficulty/complexity, individual performance, and overall state / levels of constant anxiety.  The results revealed the correlation between the severity of mathematics anxiety and low cortical activation in the early phases of the processing of numerical stimulants within the context of cognitive tasks.

Second Study (Klados et al., 2017)

Unlike the other studies, the participants were informed of the fact that they were going to participate in a mathematics experiment, and their resting-state EEGs were taken before and after the experiment. As per the pre-experiment EEG results, the participants, who were aware that they were going to participate in a mathematics experiment, were separated from one another on all EEG bands based on the severity of the mathematics anxiety that they reported. Based on what was reported by the authors, the brain networks of the students with high mathematics anxiety showed a more effective functional organization by attempting to regulate the negative emotions caused by the mathematics problem they were about to solve.

Third Study (Klados et al., 2019)

In the last study published, however, multi-faceted EEG data were used in order to research the cortical activations caused by mathematics anxiety, and the functional networks charged with the working memory tasks with increasing difficulty. The results show that the group with high mathematics anxiety activated more regions associated with negative emotions, pain and fear, and that the working memory of the group with lower mathematics anxiety activated regions that are rather associated with the coding and retrieval processes. Furthermore, as per the functional connection analysis, they revealed that the individuals with lower mathematics anxiety have more structured cortical networks in regions associated with the working memory, such as frontal cortex, while those with high mathematics anxiety have more dispersed and unstructured cortical networks, which in turn causes mathematics anxiety to create a vicious cycle that deteriorates the working memory.

– Ashcraft, M. H. (2002). Math anxiety: Personal, educational, and cognitive consequences. Current directions in psychological science, 11(5), 181-185.
– Chang, H., & Beilock, S. L. (2016). The math anxiety-math performance link and its relation to individual and environmental factors: a review of current behavioral and psychophysiological research. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 10, 33-38.
– Ashcraft, M. H., & Kirk, E. P. (2001). The relationships among working memory, math anxiety, and performance. Journal of experimental psychology: General, 130(2), 224.
– M. A. Klados, P. Simos, S. Micheloyannis, D. Margulies, and P. D. Bamidis, ‘‘ERP measures of math anxiety: How math anxiety affects working memory and mental calculation tasks?’’ Front. Behav. Neurosci., vol. 9, p. 282, Oct. 2015.
– M. A. Klados, N. Pandria, S. Micheloyannis, D. Margulies, and P. D. Bamidis, ‘‘Math anxiety: Brain cortical network changes in anticipation of doing mathematics,’’ Int. J. Psychophysiol., vol. 122, pp. 24–31, Dec. 2017.
– Klados, M. A., Paraskevopoulos, E., Pandria, N., & Bamidis, P. D. (2019). The impact of math anxiety on working memory: A cortical activations and cortical functional connectivity EEG study. IEEE Access, 7, 15027-15039.