Thinking About Thinking - 2017


The Fear of Math… and of Everything Else

By Balaji Prasad

“If you know the enemy, and know yourself,
you need not fear the results of a hundred battles."
? Sun Tzu

Strangely, there are many people who are afraid of mathematics! At least of parts of it. It is not as common to find people who are afraid of, say, biology, or history. This is a very interesting phenomenon.

Since math is particularly important in schools and colleges, as well as in many industries, it makes sense to try and understand the bases of this fear of math. If we understand these, maybe we can do something about it. Maybe we can make it go away. Or, at least manage it, perhaps even capitalize on it?

Fear of anything

Why are we afraid of anything at all? If we get a better grasp of fear, in general, it may give us insight into specific fears, such as those of math. And, is not living more important than math, which is only a part of living? So, exploring the nature of fear has the potential to illuminate the way to not just better math grades and scores, but also to better ones in the practice of the most important discipline: living.

Fear is a force – an emotional one – that plays inside all of us to varying degrees in varied situations. There are many books and papers on the subject. Psychiatrists get rich because of fear, as do religious gurus, godmen, swamis, astrologers and such. Fear is a much studied, and much experienced force.

There is an “I" in fear

When I look outside and see the tree shed its leaves for the fall, I feel no fear, no concern whatsoever. There are many such things that go on in the world, but we remain relatively untouched by events that have little bearing on the things that really matter to us. Despite earnest proclamations of the outrage at atrocities in various parts of the world such as Syria and North Korea, we do not feel the same fear as the people living there. But fear is not so absent, when things matter. To me. If it is important for me to stay employed, and there is suddenly some threat to this state of employment, the adrenaline rushes in, fear makes its appearance, and what I feel and do begins to shift.

So, it is only when things matter that fear rears its head. Matter to whom? To me, obviously! So, I matter, and something else matters to what I think of as me.

There is imagination in fear

I fear, I fear, I fear so much,
when something from me is torn away,
I'm thing that teeters without its crutch,
Never mind it's only the words I say,
and never a thing that's real to my touch

Mathematics does not have to be hard. I only need to believe that it is hard. For me. If I sign on to this belief, I am in the right state of mind to feel fear. I only need to feel that it is important for me to achieve something in math, and that it is going to be hard to achieve whatever it is that I believe I need to achieve.

Belief is easy when one has imagination. And, if one lacks imagination, there are others who are willing and eager to help! I cannot count the number of times I have heard parents, teachers and others characterize children as having or not having certain abilities, e.g. in math. It is also easy to fall into the trap of characterizing oneself. The expressions, “I am not good at math" or “I have an artistic bent of mind" are two sides of the same coin: a desire to characterize and label oneself, and feel things that are both irrelevant and perhaps even detrimental. Why call a spade a spade, when it may not even be a spade at all?

I spin the universe

Clearly, the universe spins on its own, without my help? Or does it? Am I sure that I know where my beliefs end, and where the reality begins? Unless, I don't have any beliefs at all, of course. I can be belief-free only if I have “perfect knowledge". If that is a thing, at all! That, itself, is a belief that can be held, only because it is possible to express such an idea. Not everything expressible is true. So perhaps things are not what meet the eye, as it would seem? Maybe things are what meet the “I"?

Maybe I do spin the universe after all, even more than it spins itself.

What does spin have to do with math!?

When I make the universe spin, my head spins with the beliefs that I spin. If I spin that I am not good at math, and repeat it to myself a thousand times, the universe will spin in a way that makes my belief so. And, every time I and math have a date, there is a deer in the headlights. The deer is me. The headlights are what I spun.

Why does fear matter? It would not, if my brainpower were infinite. Then, fear could consume part of my brain, but leave enough capacity to apply to a math (or other) problem. But when real estate is scarce, I have to decide whether to build an edifice of fear, or one of performance. If my brain is sweating feverishly over the importance of my grade in math and whether I can solve the particular problem I am working on, there is less bandwidth for the actual task of applying what I know to the problem at hand. The problem suffers, while my fear thrives. Would it not be nice to flip this around?

Respect the brain's capacity

Knowing one's limits is important. Resources are not always infinite. Our brains are certainly limited. Ironically, they may be less limited, if we see that the human brain's capacity is limited. Then, perhaps, I would try to treat it with more respect, with an attitude of frugality. I work with my students on some of these things too, besides the subject matter, whether it is high-school math or the SAT/ACT sections.