Avoiding math on a rapid timescale: Emotional responsivity and anxious attention in math anxiety

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Math anxiety (MA) is characterized by negative feelings towards mathematics, resulting in avoidance of math classes and of careers that rely on mathematical skills. Focused on a long timescale, this research may miss important cognitive and affective processes that operate moment-to-moment, changing rapid reactions even when a student simply sees a math problem. Here, using fMRI with an attentional deployment paradigm, we show that MA influences rapid spontaneous emotional and attentional responses to mathematical stimuli upon brief presentation. Critically, participants viewed but did not attempt to solve the problems. Indicating increased threat reactivity to even brief presentations of math problems, increased MA was associated with increased amygdala response during math viewing trials. Functionally and anatomically defined amygdala ROIs yielded similar results, indicating robustness of the finding. Similar to the pattern of vigilance and avoidance observed in specific phobia, behavioral results of the attentional paradigm demonstrated that MA is associated with attentional disengagement for mathematical symbols. This attentional avoidance is specific to math stimuli; when viewing negatively-valenced images, MA is correlated with attentional engagement, similar to other forms of anxiety. These results indicate that even brief exposure to mathematics triggers a neural response related to threat avoidance in highly MA individuals.

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