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Finally: Medical Proof That Math Makes Your Head Hurt?

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Splitting the bill after dinner can be a big headache for some people. Now researchers have an idea why.

The question: For the math-averse among us — number-crunchers like Nate Silver notwithstanding — a simple equation can cause a major headache. Why do some people find the task of balancing a checkbook or trying to split a bill after dinner to be incredibly daunting?

How it was tested: Researchers from the University of Chicago worked with 14 adults proven to have "math anxiety" based on their responses to an initial series of queries. These questions weren't actual math problems: Instead, researchers presented participants with theoretical scenarios like receiving a math textbook or taking a difficult math class in order to graduate. The volunteers weren't anxious people in general, say researchers, but rather possessed a "heightened sense of anxiety" when presented with math-related situations. For the actual experiment, their brains were hooked up to an fMRI machine, and they were given equations to verify. For example: (12 x 4) - 19 = 29.

The outcome: To the surprise of researchers, it was the anticipation of doing math, not necessarily the math itself, that elicited responses from participants that were similar to, well, being in pain. In particular, just being presented with math problems activated parts of the posterior insula, which is "a fold of tissue located deep inside the brain just above the ear that is associated with registering direct threats to the body as well as the experience of pain." More interestingly: The process of actually doing math didn't cause these same brain areas to register on fMRI.

What the experts say: "For someone who has math anxiety, the anticipation of doing math prompts a similar brain reaction as when they experience pain — say, burning one's hand on a hot stove," said study co-author Professor Sian Beilock in a statement. Previous studies have demonstrated that the higher someone's math anxiety, which can start as early as first grade, the stronger the response via brain scan.

The lesson: Anxiety isn't just a proxy for poor math skills, but it can be an indicator for a "real, negative psychological reaction." Educators and officials should therefore consider treating math anxiety like they would other phobias.

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Can You 'Hear' These Silent GIFs?
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GIFs are silent—otherwise they wouldn't be GIFs. But some people claim to hear distinct noises accompanying certain clips. Check out the GIF below as an example: Do you hear a boom every time the structure hits the ground? If so, you may belong to the 20 to 30 percent of people who experience "visual-evoked auditory response," also known as vEAR.

Researchers from City University London recently published a paper online on the phenomenon in the journal Cortex, the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports. For their study, they recruited more than 4000 volunteers and 126 paid participants and showed them 24 five-second video clips. Each clip lacked audio, but when asked how they rated the auditory sensation for each video on a scale of 0 to 5, 20 percent of the paid participants rated at least half the videos a 3 or more. The percentage was even higher for the volunteer group.

You can try out the researchers' survey yourself. It takes about 10 minutes.

The likelihood of visual-evoked auditory response, according to the researchers, directly relates to what the subject is looking at. "Some people hear what they see: Car indicator lights, flashing neon shop signs, and people's movements as they walk may all trigger an auditory sensation," they write in the study.

Images packed with meaning, like two cars colliding, are more likely to trigger the auditory illusion. But even more abstract images can produce the effect if they have high levels of something called "motion energy." Motion energy is what you see in the video above when the structure bounces and the camera shakes. It's why a video of a race car driving straight down a road might have less of an auditory impact than a clip of a flickering abstract pattern.

The researchers categorize vEAR as a type of synesthesia, a brain condition in which people's senses are combined. Those with synesthesia might "see" patterns when music plays or "taste" certain colors. Most synesthesia is rare, affecting just 4 percent of the population, but this new study suggests that "hearing motion synesthesia" is much more prevalent.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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The Surprising Link Between Language and Depression
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Skim through the poems of Sylvia Plath, the lyrics of Kurt Cobain, or posts on an internet forum dedicated to depression, and you'll probably start to see some commonalities. That's because there's a particular way that people with clinical depression communicate, whether they're speaking or writing, and psychologists believe they now understand the link between the two.

According to a recent study published in Clinical Psychological Science, there are certain "markers" in a person's parlance that may point to symptoms of clinical depression. Researchers used automated text analysis methods to comb through large quantities of posts in 63 internet forums with more than 6400 members, searching for certain words and phrases. They also noted average sentence length, grammatical patterns, and other factors.

What researchers found was that a person's use (or overuse) of first-person pronouns can provide some insight into the state of their mental health. People with clinical depression tend to use more first-person singular pronouns, such as "I" and "me," and fewer third-person pronouns, like "they," "he," or "she." As Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Reading and the head of the study, writes in a post for IFL Science:

"This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words."

What remains unclear, though, is whether people who are more focused on themselves tend to depression, or if depression turns a person's focus on themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people with depression also use more negative descriptors, like "lonely" and "miserable."

But, Al-Mosaiwi notes, it's hardly the most important clue when using language to assess clinical depression. Far better indicators, he says, are the presence of "absolutist words" in a person's speech or writing, such as "always," "constantly," and "completely." When overused, they tend to indicate that someone has a "black-and-white view of the world," Al-Mosaiwi says. An analysis of posts on different internet forums found that absolutist words were 50 percent more prevalent on anxiety and depression forums, and 80 percent more prevalent on suicidal ideation forums.

Researchers hope these types of classifications, supported by computerized methods, will prove more and more beneficial in a clinical setting.

[h/t IFL Science]

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