Postdoc explores roots of math in brain

Quick, what’s a 15 per cent tip on a $67 lunch bill? Is it time to do your taxes yet? Are you ready to renew your mortgage?

So, are you anxious yet? If so, you may be one of the 20 per cent of people who not only get edgy and panicky with the idea of math, but actually feel physical pain leading up to the inevitable number crunching.

Psychology postdoctoral fellow Ian Lyons said the idea of math anxiety could, in some ways, be compared to other phobias, such as driving or heights. And he has brought a curiosity around the topic with him to Western.

“For example, driving, you want to be vigilant, but you don’t want to stress out about it too much,” he said. “Think of it as a U-shaped function. You don’t want to be totally not paying attention, but at the same time, you don’t want to be freaking out so much you can’t focus on the task at hand.”

As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Lyons and fellow researcher Sian L. Beilock studied brain activity of subjects preparing to do math problems. While subjects showed no ill effects when doing the actual equations, it was the lead-up to the task at hand that prompted the brain activity similar to that of instinctual pain, Lyons said.

“One of the things we found interesting about the study was that it’s really a psychological event,” Lyons said. “Driving has the potential to kill you; heights and falling from a tall building have a potential to injure. Is it ok to have a certain anxiety about these things? Sure, you definitely want to express these things because they can do you harm.

“But some people take that to the extreme and just have a very strong fear, more than the norm.”

But why math? Math can’t physically hurt you.

“There are good, neutral and bad things about, say, a tall building,” Lyons said. “Only focusing on the worst possible outcome is what we think is happening with math anxious people.”

As an explanation, Lyons saw a social construct driven by experience.

“It is a high-stakes thing, let’s be honest. You don’t want to fail a test, but at the same time, if you let the fact that it’s so high stakes get to you, then you could, ironically, do terrible.”

Lyons was attracted to Western just over a month ago to work with Psychology professor Daniel Ansari, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.

Lyons hopes to continue his work on math anxiety, as well as on the overall neural and cognitive mechanisms underlying mathematical thinking.

He is interested in exploring why young children learn their native language seemingly effortlessly, but typically take years to learn basic math skills. Also puzzling to Lyons is why some children can grasp even complicated math concepts with minimal instruction, while others struggle with basics their entire lives.

And most recently, Lyons has become interested in how the brain changes as people acquire symbolic versus non-symbolic numbers.

“I am trying to understand the crucial properties that distinguish symbolic numbers from their approximate, perceptually grounded counterparts,” he said. “My hunch is that understanding how the brain processes these properties will be key to unpacking the neural foundations of more complex math abilities.”

Symbolic numbers are typically Indo-Arabic numerals, 0-9; non-symbolic numbers are an approximate number in arrays of objects and sequences of events. For example, it’s the difference between the specific number 10 versus a general sense of ‘10ishness’ and when looking at a collection of objects.

“One of things I want to do here is learn how that comes to be,” Lyons said. “How do kids acquire these numbers? Do they use that non-symbolic system to bootstrap themselves into the symbolic system, or do they ignore that altogether and build up this system from scratch? If we know exactly how that’s going, then hopefully we can make better recommendations for education.”