People who struggle with arithmetic may have a mental block caused by "maths anxiety", psychologists say. They have identified the condition as a distinct form of anxiety which interferes with the brain's working memory.
It can mean even individuals who should be competent at maths find simple arithmetic beyond them. Maths anxiety could take root in children as young as 10 or earlier, researchers believe. They are examining ways of using relaxation techniques to help people overcome the problem.
Combating maths anxiety could not only help students, but anyone who finds everyday tasks such as checking change and working out personal finances difficult.
Dr Sheila Ford, from the University of Staffordshire, who led a team of psychologists investigating maths anxiety, said: "There is a theory that maths anxiety is a form of anxiety in its own right which has an effect on performance.
"It doesn't just apply to people who are poor at maths. People who are perfectly competent at maths can be affected in a way that makes them perform less well than they would do without maths anxiety. We think it interferes with working memory, the memory you need to do calculations. It's thought what happens is that anxious thoughts compete with the memory resources we need to do maths."
She believed maths anxiety affected "large numbers" of people. Dr Ford screened 48 university students using a psychological questionnaire which produced a score of one to 100. She found the group, aged 18 to 25, varied enormously. The lowest score was two, and the most maths-anxious individual was rated at 94. Dr Ford's team is now looking at what strategies maths-anxious people employ on arithmetic.
"They might think they know the answer, but are not confident, so they resort to complicated counting strategies," Dr Ford said. "If you rely on counting on your fingers, rather than employing tricks such as rounding up, you are much more dependent on working memory."
The findings were presented at the British Psychological Society's annual conference at the University of Manchester last weekend.
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