Health & Science

A hurtful thing to think about

The pain of math

Difficulties with math, from balancing a checkbook to tallying a tip, can cause some people to feel genuine pain. That’s the finding of a new study that examined the brains of people with high levels of math anxiety as they performed algebra problems. While the volunteers waited to receive each question, a region of the brain involved in processing physical pain became especially active. That region, the dorso-posterior insula, is part of the “evolutionarily ancient pain system” that triggers the hurt we feel, for instance, “when we burn our hands on the stove,” University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock tells The same region also appears to register intense emotional anguish, like the feelings surrounding a bad breakup. Among those who fear math, the region lights up when they merely think about the subject, causing them to feel similar distress—a sensation that is bound to reinforce their math anxieties. But surprisingly, the dorso-posterior insula became active only while volunteers waited to receive their next problem—not while they were actually doing it. “It is not that math itself hurts,” Beilock and her colleagues reason. “Rather, merely the anticipation of math is painful.”

Spotting the first starlight

Astronomers have detected light emitted by the first stars in the universe. The light from all the stars that ever shone travels through the universe forever, creating a “cosmic fog” called extragalactic background light. Changes in that light over time present a record of the universe’s development, but the glare from our own galaxy has long hampered efforts to measure it. Now researchers have been able to do so by using a special gamma-ray telescope to study bright, distant galaxies called blazars. “They are like lighthouses farther and farther away from us,” Berkeley astrophysicist Marco Ajello tells The New York Times, “and from them we are able to measure the amount of starlight in different epochs.” That includes light from extinct stars, he says, that “were probably the very first objects to form in our universe,” emerging less than 500 million years after the big bang. The early universe appears to have held less than 1 percent of the number of stars it does today, but Ajello says they were hydrogen behemoths hundreds of times more massive than our sun—“hotter, brighter, and more short-lived.”

Learning to lose weight

Practicing weight-watching skills before you start a diet may be the key to keeping weight off for good. A new Stanford University study suggests that learning how to maintain your current weight—without trying to shed pounds—helps prevent you from gaining back lost pounds later. Researchers put more than 250 overweight women into two groups. In one, women began dieting right away by eating healthier foods and exercising. In the other, women were asked not to lose any weight, but merely to spend eight weeks working on weight-maintenance skills, such as weighing themselves daily and being mindful of portion sizes and calorie intake. That “practice run” allowed the women to “work out the kinks” involved in maintaining a regular weight “without the pressure of worrying about how much weight they had lost,” study author Michaela Kiernan tells ScienceDaily​.com. After eight weeks, they launched into the same diet program as the other group, and shed roughly the same number of pounds. But in the year following their diet, they regained only half the weight that the traditional dieters did.

Health scare of the week

Hypertension ages the brain

Higher-than-normal blood pressure could be speeding your brain’s decline, even if you’re under 40. Researchers scanned the brains of nearly 600 people between the ages of 18 and 65, and found that the brains of people in their 30s and 40s with blood pressure levels even just slightly higher than a healthy 120/80 bore some similarities to the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Even though the subjects had no outward symptoms of memory loss, they had less gray matter (the brain’s store of neurons and axons) and white matter (the brain tissue that carries signals between brain regions) than did peers with normal blood pressure levels. The brain of a 30-year-old with high blood pressure appeared similar to the brain of a healthy 40-year-old, and the higher a person’s blood pressure, the more damage his brain had sustained. “This is quite disconcerting, because high blood pressure is so common,” study author Charles S. DeCarli of the University of California, Davis, tells Some 50 million Americans, including more and more young people, have elevated blood pressure.

Subscribe to the The Week Magazine for iPad
Click here to download from the App Store