YOU HAVE TWO HOURS TO COMPLETE THE CALCULUS EXAM…LET’S BEGIN. (Psst!.......Is your math anxiety heritable, environmental or a multifactorial construct?)

by epigene on April 11, 2017 - 11:29am

Sean Bigler

BIO 206

April 11, 2017




YOU HAVE TWO HOURS TO COMPLETE THE CALCULUS EXAM…LET’S BEGIN.  (Psst!.......Is your math anxiety heritable, environmental or a multifactorial construct?)


Picture yourself in the middle of a _______ math test.  How do you feel?  Do you exhibit signs of anxiety like rapid pulse, nervous stomach, palpitations etc.?  Also, how sharp is your mind and memory at this moment?  Can you recall and execute the concepts and information you learned by studying for the test?  If you are struggling right now, put down your pencil/calculator and read on.

A recent study on the genetic and environmental origins of spatial, mathematics and general anxiety was conducted in the UK using monozygotic and dizygotic twins.  The research team sampled detailed and specific questionnaire data from 1,464 19 to 21-year old twins and was able to draw some fascinating conclusions regarding the combination of anxiety, genetics and the environment.  The results showed that anxiety measures were moderately heritable at 30% to 41% (Margherita Malanchini et al, 2017) and that non-shared environmental factors encompassed the remaining variance.

The study also showed that spatial anxiety (tasks involving navigation and orienting), general and mathematics anxiety each had some uniquely genetic and environmental influences but with some common overlap.  The researchers indicated that further research would seek to identify specific genes or groups of genes and environments, which contribute to each of the anxiety states. 

The research results also confirmed evidence that suggests that general anxiety results in an interference with the verbal working memory system.  In contrast, mathematics anxiety is thought to cause a disruption in the subsystem of visual working memory (Margherita Malanchini et al, 2017).  These disruptions or interference in working memory when experiencing anxiety helps explain why some students develop negative feelings toward activities requiring math, which can lead to poor academic performance in these subjects.  Other studies using neuroimaging have found that people with high mathematics anxiety show an increased activation and connectivity in the amygdala area of the brain when presented with mathematics stimuli (Digitale, Erin, 2012).  The amygdala is a mass of nuclei located in the temporal part of the brain which is involved in responses related to fear, emotions and survival.



I enjoyed reading this article and found it especially interesting as a student completing a degree in math and science.  I have certainly experienced test anxiety and the sometimes overwhelmed feeling that came over me in studying calculus.  I noticed during tests that my cognitive processing seemed to slow down and that I seemed to exhibit OCD-like tendencies.  I felt the need to check and double check simple calculations and problems that I would never do when completing homework problems.  Could I have a genetic or multifactorial trait which contributes to math anxiety or do I feel general test anxiety across all subjects?  I am an A student in my math and science courses but I tend to need quite a lot of study and preparation to do well on tests. 

This study did not report if successful mathematics students experience a higher than normal anxiety or increased activity in the amygdala region of the brain.  Is cognitive ability in math separate from math anxiety states?  Anxiety levels may be significant enough for students to avoid the subject altogether.  Obviously, whatever my level of math anxiety I have, it wasn’t enough to deter me from learning higher order derivatives!

So, let’s get back to your test…Breathe deeply, try to relax your body and read the instructions and the problems carefully.  You can do this!  Good luck.


Works Cited

Digitale, Erin. Imaging Study Reveals Differences in Brain Function for Children with Math Anxiety.  Stanford Medicine| News Center, 3/21/2017. Web:  4/3/2017:

Malanchini, M., Rimfeld, K., Shakeshaft, N. G., Rodic, M., Schofield, K., Selzam, S., ... Kovas, Y. (2017). The genetic and environmental aetiology of spatial, mathematics and general anxiety. Scientific Reports7, [42218]. 10.1038/srep42218


What an awesome article! This is something that I can absolutely relate to, as with many other students. As a student I constantly struggled in math, feeling prepared and doing great on hw and practice questions and then blanking or making silly mistakes during exams due to stress and being anxious. It is interesting to see how having generalized anxiety affects your memory system. As stated above, it would be intriguing to see if those that do well in math also report having certain anxiety problems. I also wonder if the location of those taking tests, may influence or increase a students anxiety, playing into the environmental factor more so than the genetic/heritable variance.

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