Brain region’s activity linked to juggling emotions as well as equations
If you’re finding yourself feeling stressed and anxious, it may be helpful to do some math problems. Or, alternately, if you’re math scores could use some work, you might do some behavioral therapy. At this point, it’s not clear if a bit of calculation would really impact your emotional responses to stress, but there’s probably some overlap, because they appear to be processes in the same region of the brain.
Active brain anatomy
Researchers started looking closely a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex because of its role in depression and anxiety. People displaying symptoms of these problems were found to have less activity in their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, but that seemed to change if they engaged in cognitive behavioral therapy. As they worked at developing strategies to cope and re-think their reactions to negative situations, this region of the brain was found to become more and more active.
Interestingly, handling negative emotions isn’t the only thing that gets the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex going. fMRI scans have shown that the same bit of gray matter lights up when people are doing memory-based math problems. The better someone could handle juggling numbers in their head, the more neural activity was observed. Incidentally, these same test subjects also seemed to exhibit better coping skills, implying a degree of crossover between calculations and managing emotions.
Alleviating anxiety with arithmetic?
On a basic level, it looks like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex helps us command a variety of abstract variables at a time, and that is the core ability can help us solve a math problem or not get overwhelmed when things aren’t going our way. Researchers are now hoping that we can exercise and strengthen the portion of the brain and benefit in both spheres of life. For some people, working on math problems might be a more approachable way to fight depression or anxiety than more emotionally oriented therapies. It also says something about how our brains work, suggesting that exercising them like a muscle may provide a variety of benefits, even if we don’t apply them in the same ways in our daily lives (but especially if you feel anxiety over math problems.)
Source: Could Mental Health Boost Emotional Health? by Karl Bates, Duke Today