New research suggests that a cognitive reappraisal strategy can help math anxious individuals regulate their negative emotions surrounding math. The study found neural evidence that this reappraisal allows for increased activity in regions of the brain responsible for arithmetic — paving the way for improved math performance. The findings were published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Math anxiety, as the term would suggest, is characterized by feelings of distress or fear that arise when confronted with mathematical tasks. Such anxiety can follow a person throughout their lives, not only affecting math performance in school but interfering with everyday life.
Study authors Rachel G. Pizzie and her team wanted to explore an intervention strategy that might alleviate the effects of math anxiety by targeting its emotional component. The strategy they proposed focused on cognitive reappraisal — the practice of reframing an emotional situation before it has a chance to lend its emotional impact. They proposed that limiting the affective component of math anxiety should free up cognitive resources that can then be allocated toward mathematical tasks.
“I am ultimately interested in how emotion interacts with learning and thinking. In this case, studying math anxiety allows us to explore how anxiety and negative emotion associated with math interferes or impedes our ability to approach mathematics or perform math calculations,” explained Pizzie, an assistant professor and the director of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (CAN) lab at Gallaudet University.
“These emotional processes can have big consequences, where we see that math anxious individuals are deterred from math classes and careers that involve quantitative skills, such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Ultimately, I’m interested in understanding how these emotional processes work in the context of education, so we can create better methods for intervening to help individuals have a more positive experience, and to reduce the impact of these negative emotions on performance.”
Pizzie and her colleagues had a sample of 74 students between the ages of 13 and 22 partake in a laboratory experiment. The students presented with varying levels of math anxiety, as measured by a questionnaire at the end of the study. While attached to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, subjects went through a series of trials where they were presented with either math or word analogy problems.
“In this fMRI study, we explored how cognitive reappraisal, an emotion regulation technique that involves rethinking or reframing an emotional experience, can be used in the context of mathematics for those who have increased math anxiety,” Pizzie told PsyPost. “Since math anxious individuals experience heightened negative emotion while doing math calculations, we hypothesized that they might be benefited by using a technique to help regulate this negative emotion.”
At the start of the study, the students were trained on a cognitive reappraisal strategy that taught them to either reframe the problem (e.g., imagining themselves explaining it to a friend) or to reframe their stress response to the problem (e.g., reminding themselves that anxiety can be useful and potentially improve their focus on the problem). For every block of six trials, the students were instructed to either use a reappraisal strategy or to simply approach the tasks as they normally would.
“In order to “reappraise” a math problem, we asked participants to imagine they were completing the math problem in a low-stakes context, such as explaining the problem to a friend, or imagining that the stress or anxiety they might be feeling would help them address the challenge of completing the problem,” Pizzie said.
As expected, the researchers found that students with greater math anxiety performed worse on the math problems compared to those with low math anxiety. However, the cognitive reappraisal strategy appeared to reduce the performance differences between the two groups. Students with math anxiety did better on the math problems when they used a reframing strategy, compared to when they approached the problems as they normally would.
Moreover, the reappraisal strategy appeared to be most effective among those with the greatest math anxiety. The higher a students’ math anxiety, the more their accuracy improved during the reappraisal trials compared to the non-reappraisal trials. Students with greater math anxiety also tended to rate their experience less negatively in the reappraisal trials.
Pizzie and colleagues also found neural evidence that might explain why the reappraisal strategies improved the students’ math performance. First, students using the reappraisal strategy while solving the math problems showed a pattern of activity within a network of brain areas that are typically activated during the reframing of emotional stimuli. This suggests that students were effectively able to apply cognitive reappraisal to the math tasks.
Furthermore, among math anxious students, math performance improvements that were attributed to the reappraisal strategy were linked to increased activity in parts of the brain involved in arithmetic, particularly the bilateral intraparietal sulcus (IPS). This finding suggests that the reappraisal strategy improved the performances of math anxious students by boosting the engagement of brain regions involved in arithmetic.
“The results show that for more highly math anxious individuals using a reappraisal technique, more accurate math performance was also associated with increased brain activity in neural regions of the brain that are associated with arithmetic processing,” Pizzie told PsyPost.
“Overall, this result demonstrates that highly math anxious individuals who implement this reappraisal technique show an improvement in math accuracy that corresponds to an increase in brain activity in regions associated with math calculations, suggesting this is a promising technique to help highly math anxious individuals improve their performance and decrease their negative experience.”
But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.
“More research needs to be done to address how emotion regulation techniques like reappraisal might be utilized in math learning, or in ‘real-world’ contexts like math classrooms,” Pizzie explained. “In this study, all our participants completed the task in an fMRI scanner, and we used a task that all our participants already knew how to do: order-of-operations arithmetic problems. Using a technique like reappraisal may be very different when people are less familiar with the material, or are actively engaged in the learning process.”
“In addition, individuals who experience math anxiety may represent a diverse set of educational backgrounds and learning experiences,” Pizzie added. “Even though we think reappraisal is a flexible technique that can be implemented in a wide variety of contexts, this study hasn’t addressed how these different experiences and real-word contexts could affect the kind of results that we see in this study.”
Nevertheless, the authors conclude that cognitive reappraisal shows promise as an intervention strategy to improve math performance among those high in math anxiety.
“Even though we don’t necessarily think of ‘math’ as being particularly ’emotional,’ math anxiety provides an important way to study emotions and how they occur in a real-world context,” Pizzie said. “Past studies using cognitive reappraisal have mostly focused on more traditional affective or emotional stimuli, like emotional movies, pictures, and other affective experiences.”
“However, when we look at participants’ brain activity while they use cognitive reappraisal while doing math calculations, we also see increased brain activity in the same networks of brain regions that are used to reappraise traditional negative stimuli. In other words, even though participants are reappraising math instead of negative pictures, we still observe increased activity in the same networks of brain regions that process regulating negative affect using reappraisal.”
The study, “Neural evidence for cognitive reappraisal as a strategy to alleviate the effects of math anxiety”, was authored by Rachel G. Pizzie, Cassidy L. McDermott, Tyler G. Salem, and David J.M. Kraemer.