college presidentpsychologySTEM President Sian Leah Beilock is a nationally recognized cognitive scientist who has conducted extensive research on math anxiety, with a specific focus on women and girls. At TedMed 2017, she spoke about the origins of her passion for cognitive science—an important soccer match gone awry—and highlighted her research on improving performance and reducing math anxiety. Brain scans, she said, have shown neural pain responses similar to physical pain in some who are particularly math-phobic, and the prefrontal cortex, which usually aids in focusing on a task, can “overload” in stressful situations and hyperfocus on extraneous details. Beilock offered practical in-the-moment tips for refocusing, such as writing in a journal or singing a song, and stressed the need for parents and teachers to act as good role models, engaging with children in fun learning activities to improve their experiences with math. She also participated in a Q&A about the talk.
Groundbreaking Research Published During First Year as President
During her first year as president, Beilock published several academic papers that further our understanding of how being anxious about math can affect how people learn and perform in math and science. Her work, which includes research collaborations with Barnard alumnae, provides knowledge about how to succeed when it matters most. Moreover, through her mentorship of female PhD students (the first authors on her papers are often her former students), Beilock helps promote the next generation of outstanding women in science.
How the Brain Does Math
In the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Beilock’s team looked at what happens in the brain when people do math. They were especially interested in whether people who have anxiety about math solve even the simplest problems (e.g., 5 + 3 = 8) differently from people who don’t have anxiety. Math anxiety is a common phenomenon. In fact, an estimated 31 percent of 15-year-old students (from countries who are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) report getting very nervous when solving math problems.
Previously, it was thought that people who are math-anxious struggle only with difficult math problems, not simple ones. But Beilock and her team found that even when doing simple math, the brains of people who are anxious about math look different from those who do not experience anxiety. People who were higher versus lower in math anxiety showed different patterns of neural activity related to math performance, specifically in the fronto-parietal attentional network underlying our ability to focus on the task at hand. Even for simple arithmetic problems typically mastered in early elementary school, brain activity can differ depending on one’s math anxiety.
In short, when people don’t have math anxiety, math performance is fluent and easy. When people do have math anxiety, it can be a struggle for them to solve even simple problems. This suggests that we need to look at how children and adults with anxiety about math approach all types of math, not just more difficult math problems.
Positive Attitudes and Achievement in School
In the Journal of Cognition and Development, Beilock co-authored an article showing