The electrophysiological correlates of maths anxety: Exploring the role of gamma activity
AffiliationUniversity of Derby
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AbstractThis thesis set out to investigate the electrophysiological correlates of maths anxiety (MA). Research has shown that those with high MA (HMA) tend to have poorer accuracy and increased reaction time on maths based tasks and that high maths anxious individuals avoid situations where they might have to use maths. This can impact on their future by restricting their degree or job prospects. Previous research has identified the behavioural cognitive and psychological effects of MA and recently studies have begun to examine the associated underlying mechanisms in the brain. Chapter one outlines the background MA behavioural and measurement research before evaluating the neurophysiological methods used in cognitive neuroscience and the use of electroencephalography (EEG) in chapter two. Chapter three continues by outlining previous research concerning the neurophysiological processing of maths and number before evaluating relevant neurophysiological research concerning MA. Four experimental studies are conducted, exploring the neurophysiological underpinnings of MA research using EEG. Each of these recruits 30 participants and measures of electro-cortical (Event Related Potentials (ERPs), Global Field Power, Frequency etc.) and questionnaire measures are implemented. The first study aimed to identify whether the behavioural effects of MA (poorer accuracy and increased reaction time) are consistent with ERP differences (component amplitude and latency differences) in the brain and to understand why these effects are experienced. This revealed no significant comparisons between ERP components and behavioural responses involving low and high maths anxious individuals, but this may have been due to the lack of an anxious response by using a verification task, rather than requiring calculation. Study two introduces the measurement of gamma activity as a neurophysiological measure of anxiety and threat processing and brings three core areas of anxiety research together: Previous studies outline high anxiety in connection with gamma modulation, also showing gamma band activity is associated with the amygdala and finally, that the amygdala is responsible for the processing of threat perception and anxiety. This research has not been brought together when studying MA. Results produced similar ERP findings to the previous study but the introduction of gamma activity into the research provided the first differences between high and low MA (LMA) groups, showing significantly greater gamma activity levels in HMA individuals. However, this study only used numerically-based tasks, thus the third study implemented a non-numerical condition to act as a control. Study three replicates the findings showing a reduced level of gamma activity in high MA individuals for the non-numerical based task, however, this was also reduced for the simple maths task. It was theorised that it is more likely to be the initial threat perception that represents the anxious response and gamma activity increases. To test this and remove any working memory demands, the fourth study implements the presentation of single digit observation (using single digit numbers and letters). Even though there was no demand on working memory, high maths anxious participants displayed similar levels of gamma activity as low maths anxious individuals during letter observation. However, they had significantly greater levels during the observation of number. Findings suggest that HMA individuals may not only struggle with the processing of maths stimuli, but may have a threat-related response to the simple observation of numerical stimuli. This implies that HMA individuals consistently apply an avoidance technique due to a threat response associated with increased levels of gamma activity. The findings of the each study are finally discussed in terms of their contribution to the neurophysiological underpinnings of MA, the first exploration of this using gamma activity, future research and the extent that number anxiety may act as a precursor or sine qua non to MA.
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