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When it comes to math, her number's up

Date published: 1/11/2013

By Edie Gross

ARECENT study at the University of Chicago proves once and for all that math can cause headaches.

This explains the throbbing pain I've had behind my eyes since roughly the fourth grade, when my idyllic childhood was all but destroyed by the cruel introduction of word problems.

Only a few months earlier, I'd mastered my multiplication tables, despite an all-out offensive by the 7's and 12's to keep me from doing so.

Fool that I was, I thought that would be the worst of it.

Suddenly, I was trying to solve problems like this: If Train A leaves Cleveland at 11 a.m. Eastern Standard Time and heads west at an average speed of 73 mph and Train B leaves Walla Walla, Wash., at 9:15 a.m. Pacific time and heads east at 68 mph on a parallel track, at what time should all the passengers on Train A stick their backsides out the windows and moon all the people on Train B, and in which city will the resulting monument to the record-setting effort be built?

After that came a years-long barrage of postulates, permutations, polyhedrons and Pythagorean theorems--enough to turn my gray matter black and blue.

Every square root, every quadratic formula, every multiplicative inverse made me want to hang myself from the nearest hypotenuse.

I officially washed my hands of math sometime in junior high after coming to the shocking realization that the much ballyhooed Pi had not even the slightest tangential relationship to actual pie.

At that point, I concluded that Euclid, the ancient Greek mathematician credited with being the Father of Geometry, was also the Father of Dashed Hopes and Dreams.

For the study at the University of Chicago, math-phobic participants were subjected to brain scans while simultaneously being threatened with math (a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions, but I digress).

In each instance, the scan revealed an image not unlike artist Edvard Munch's "The Scream."

Also, the images showed increased activity deep in a part of the brain generally reserved for panic attacks, mass hysteria and close encounters with chain saw-wielding proctologists.

One of the researchers responsible for the study likened the brain's response to what would happen if you placed your hand on a very hot stove--which, coincidentally, is high atop a list of things I'd rather do than math.

One of my biggest frustrations with math was it was never enough to simply get the right answer. Teachers always insisted we show our work. Explaining in a note at the top of the test that you'd gotten your answers off the paper of the straight-A student next to you did not, in most cases, qualify as showing your work.

I recall one math teacher scribbling across the top of one of my tests: "Some of your answers are correct, but I can't give you credit because you didn't show your work, so I have no idea how you got them."

Which was fine because, in truth, I had no idea how I'd gotten them either.

Though I was pretty sure they'd arrived right about the same time as my splitting headache.

Edie Gross: 540/374-5428
Email: egross@freelancestar.com