Doing simple maths in your head has been linked to better emotional health by a new study.
The reason is that the same areas of the brain are involved in both emotional processing and mental maths.
The research could be the first step towards creating brain training exercises to help anxiety and depression.
Mr Matthew Scult, the study’s first author, said:
“Our work provides the first direct evidence that the ability to regulate emotions like fear and anger reflects the brain’s ability to make numerical calculations in real time.”
The study involved brain scans of 186 people who were doing mental math problems from memory.
Researchers were interested in an area of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
This area has been linked to depression and anxiety.
When people learn cognitive-behavioural therapy, more activity is seen in this area of the brain, suggesting it is critical in dealing with emotional problems.
The researchers found that more activity in this region was linked to more emotional adaptability.
Mr Scult said:
“We don’t know for sure why that is, but it fit into our hypothesis that the ability to do these more complex math problems might allow you to more readily learn how to think about complex emotional situations in different ways.
It is easy to get stuck in one way of thinking.”
The more activity was seen in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the lower people’s levels of depression and anxiety.
It’s not yet clear if mental maths really causes better emotional control.
However, Mr Scult said:
“We hope, with these and future studies, that we can inform new strategies to help people regulate their emotions, and to prevent symptoms of anxiety and depression from developing in the first place.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science (Scult et al., 2016).