Recent research has shown that mindfulness meditation practice can improve math performance. One huge finding was that mindfulness is effective at reducing math anxiety. This is a critical finding because fear of math keeps many students away from the STEM field entirely. There are many students who refuse to even enroll in college courses because they want to avoid mathematics. But mindfulness has been shown to help reduce these unwanted and unhelpful feelings. Meditation can also improve math skills by helping students focus and spend more of their study time on-task completing the necessary assignments or learning the required skills.
My name is Eric Earle and I’ve been meditating for nearly half a decade now. I’ve meditated for over 1000 hours and I credit it to much of my success in mathematics. I’m the founder of a few tutoring companies: TutorPortland.com, MathTutorsMiami.com, & MathTutorBoston.com. I believe that math tutors should focus more on incorporating mindfulness meditation into their teaching.
What exactly is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness meditation was first developed by the Buddha thousands of years ago. He made the simple yet profound realization that we can improve our focus and concentration simply by focusing on our breathing. He realized that our breathing is always happening. It comes and goes without us paying it much thought. And he realized that by focusing our attention on the quality of our breath and how it changes—we could better our lives. More recently, within the past 20-30 years, several researchers in the United States have isolated the beneficial process of mindfulness meditation from religion itself. This was done by a leading researcher named Jon Kabat Zinn, who developed Mindfulness Based Stress Relief (MBSR). Dr. Kabat-Zinn is a PhD who honed the practice with patients at a hospital in Massachusetts. He told the doctors there, whenever you have a patient who has untreatable pain and suffering—send them to me, and I will help them. And help them he did! Jon was able to radically reduce pain and suffering in his patients by helping them be mindful of simple things such as their breathing or their body.
How does mindfulness meditation help reduce math anxiety?
Math anxiety essentially stems from our fight vs flight response. This happens when our sympathetic nervous system becomes overactive. It causes our heart to beat faster and our body to release stress hormones. It basically causes our body to ramp-up and prepare to either flee or fight. When it comes to mathematics, most people with math anxiety try to flee! This is why people try to avoid math all-together. They want to run away from it. It can also cause them to tense-up during an exam. Mindfulness is effective at reducing math anxiety because it kicks a competing system into gear—the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the system in our bodies that is responsible for “rest & digest.” There are several physiological changes that happen when the parasympathetic nervous system is turned on. Our heart rate decreases. We become more relaxed and at ease. Our body begins to speed up digestion and moves more blood to our gut and gastrointestinal organs. The decreased heart rate allows us to conserve energy. All of this physiology means that we feel much calmer. And that helps to put us into a relaxed state and frame of mind.
Why is this important?
This is super important stuff because it is believed that math anxiety is wide-spread. Some researchers have theorized that math anxiety affects a whopping 80% of college students. Furthermore, it is known that math anxiety has an even stronger effect on disadvantaged minority students. When students are caught in the grip of anxiety, brain imaging has shown that they have increased activation in their amygdala (which is the fear center of the brain). They also show deficits in working memory. Neither of those are helpful when trying to solve math problems or taking an exam! However, mindfulness practice helps us to overcome this. Mindfulness has been proven to decrease activity in the amygdala while also increasing activity in the prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain that is responsible for rational thought and planning. Furthermore, mindfulness has been shown to increase both concentration intensity and duration. These are valuable assets for any student of mathematics.
Are there other benefits to mindfulness?
But we don’t have to stop here! There are numerous other benefits to meditation & mindfulness. It has been proven that mindfulness practice helps to reduce stress and improve sleep. Meditation has also been shown to decrease rumination—a terrible mental state where our mind replays the same negative thoughts over and over and over. Mindfulness has also been shown to increase our working memory! (Okay, yes, that is super important for mathematics—but also helps us in many other areas of life, too). Mindfulness can reduce our emotional reactivity. Mindfulness has even been shown to improve our immune system functioning! That is something we could all use a little bit of these days. And it seems as though more and more benefits are being realized by researchers every year. This is an exciting time to be practicing mindfulness. We highly encourage students to begin a mindfulness practice so that they can reduce their math anxiety—and reap a host of other great benefits, as well.
*This is a partnered post. All opinions are my own and not swayed by outside sources.*