Learning Lab

To think and to do

By Amy Brann

“Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater. “ Albert Einstein.

A recurrent theme here is Behaviour Change. Not just a focus on what determines our behaviour, but the processes that help us change. Why is that?

For some reason, we appear to develop habits and attitudes that, later on, we decide we want to change. “I must be more organized with my e-mails”; “I should spend more time chatting to colleagues about the organisation”; “I would like to spend my lunchtime reading, but never seem to be able to.”

This failure to ‘do what we would like to do’ can be explained in part with the dual-process model of behaviour (see table below and Evans, 2008). I’ve mentioned this in previous newsletters. We have a fast, automatic system that controls our everyday behaviour and simply gets on with things. It creates habits and gives in to temptations like snacking and procrastination. The second system is our control centre, which tries to get us to do the right things (self-regulation). It is slow and effortful and represents our conscious mind. One system says ‘be organized’, the other says ‘no, be lazy’ and it’s often the lazy system that wins.

But why is it so hard for the cognitive system? Why does the lazy system tend to win. Well a recent paper in the journal PLoS One may help explain the mystery, and tell us a bit about our school days too!

The study focuses on mathematics. Something that you either love or hate (and most of us hate!) In the research, participants thought about doing maths problems and the researchers were interested in how the brain responded in different people with different attitudes towards maths (Lyons et al., 2012). Those who didn’t like doing maths showed increased activity in the pain centres of their brain! Several regions of the brain, the insula, cingulate and thalamus, are thought to be part of our pain system and if you stimulate these regions you actually produce a sensation of pain (Lenz et al, 1993). Interestingly, it has also been shown that social rejection causes activity in the insula and so there may be a variety of situations where we feel real pain even though we’re not actually being bitten or poked with a stick (Eisenberger et al., 2003).

So thinking about maths hurts! Not only this, but those who hurt the most also perform the worst when they actually do maths. And, it puts them off doing maths in future. So there’s a simple cascade of effects here: We think about doing a task that we perceive to be difficult and perhaps even anxiety provoking; this gives us a feeling of pain; we are put off from doing the task and take an easier option instead. And hence, we maintain our bad habits and continue to take the easy, lazy, option.

Is there anything we can do to help? Can we fight back? Do we want to fight back?

On the one hand, pain is adaptive as it tells us to stop doing what we’re doing. Pain says: “You are being damaged, you must stop right now. If you continue you might suffer further injuries or even death!” However, as with maths sometimes the signal is metaphorical – you are not actually at risk of injury, but instead your brain is finding it hard and would rather you took an easy option. In this latter case, there is no real reason why you can’t push through the pain – it isn’t real in any physical sense. It is merely a reflection of you trying to do something that is difficult. Most of the time I would recommend you listen to what your brain is telling you. At other times though, like with visual illusions, it is trying to fool you!

If you do persevere in your challenging task, then it will be easier next time. If you do push, you’ll begin to establish new habits and routines that become more fluent and less painful. Ultimately, persevering, little by little, we can all become mentally stronger and better regulated individuals.

If it feels painful, then it really does hurt. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should stop!

– Dr John –


Eisenberger NI, Lieberman MD, Williams KD (2003) Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302: 290–292.

Evans J (2008) Dual-Processing Accounts Of Reasoning, Judgment, And Social Cognition Annual Review Of Psychology 59 , 255–278

Lyons IM, Beilock SL (2012) When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math. PLoS ONE 7(10): e48076. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048076

Lenz FA, Seike M, Richardson RT, Lin YC, Baker FH, et al. (1993b) Thermal and pain sensations evoked by microstimulation in the area of human ventrocaudal nucleus. J Neurophysiol, 70: 200–212.

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