Simple arithmetic: not so simple for highly math anxious individuals


Fluency with simple arithmetic, typically achieved in early elementary school, is thought to be one of the building blocks of mathematical competence. Behavioral studies with adults indicate that math anxiety (feelings of tension or apprehension about math) is associated with poor performance on cognitively demanding math problems. However, it remains unclear whether there are fundamental differences in how high and low math anxious individuals approach overlearned simple arithmetic problems that are less reliant on cognitive control. The current study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the neural correlates of simple arithmetic performance across high and low math anxious individuals. We implemented a partial least squares analysis, a data-driven, multivariate analysis method to measure distributed pat- terns of whole-brain activity associated with performance. Despite overall high simple arithmetic performance across high and low math anxious individuals, performance was differentially dependent on the fronto-parietal attentional network as a function of math anxiety. Specifically, low—compared to high—math anxious individuals perform better when they acti- vate this network less—a potential indication of more automatic problem-solving. These findings suggest that low and high math anxious individuals approach even the most fundamental math problems differently.

Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience