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The Rife Team

Snakes And Numbers: Why Do We Fear Maths?


Source: Stem Jobs

Do you suffer from maths anxiety? Nickie explores some of us view equations as scary as snakes.

I hated maths at school.

I hated maths at school.

One time, our teacher made us stand up, and then barked multiplication sums at us. If you got the answer right, you sat down. If you didn’t, you remained on your feet. Once, I was the last one standing. The teacher fired questions at me. Taking pity, the kid behind me whispered the answer. Everyone heard. The teacher gave up, and I was mercifully delivered to my seat.

Many friends of mine have similar stories of humiliation in maths class. According to one article in The Guardian, maths anxiety affects two million kids in England – not to mention thousands of teachers. UK-based charity, National Numeracy, found that in 2011, 22% of the working population had skills equivalent to a maths GCSE ‘C’ or above. That was down by 4% from 2003.

Why the wide-spread struggle? Stanford University asked the same question. Studying a group of children, they deciphered who had high math anxiety. When presenting those children with questions, they found the brain’s ‘fear centre’ became activated, the same area that’s activated by better-known phobias like snakes. Clearly, it’s far more reasonable to fear an adder than it is to fear the 12 times table. However, for these kids, and, apparently, for many adults, numbers continue to cause anxiety.

…numbers continue to cause anxiety.

This has little to do with smarts. I studied English at university, and the people I met on my course were intelligent – many of them intimidatingly so. Yet, whenever a math problem arose, a split bill, or wondering how long ago Chaucer died,  a silence would wash over us. We laughed at ourselves; we’d never been good with numbers. The maths department could keep their algebra. We were right-brained, creative souls, not like those ‘numbers people’.


Studies show many folk wrongly believe there’s a ‘math gene’. Either you’re born with it (you’re one of those aforementioned ‘number people’) or you’re not. Does that mean we can all be Schrödinger if we try? Well, no…but we shouldn’t be this bad, either. Believing your talent for math is innate is great if you’re good at it, and of course, some people will be better than others. However, thinking it’s a god-given skill that you’re lacking can quickly become damaging.

Where maths reduces life, the humanities and arts expand it. I carried this mantra with me for a long time, until reading an article by Swiss physicist, Nicolas Gisin. He claimed that, for science to make sense, ‘free will and flowing time must both exist’ (‘Time To Decide’, New Scientist). I read the article three times, and couldn’t decipher what Gisin was saying. I had no clue what imaginary numbers were, let alone how they’re used to explain free will. With the magazine rolled up in my palms, I realised something: I had to learn maths. Again.

I realised something: I had to learn maths. Again.

After playing with simple equations for a month, my fondness for numbers grew. Not that Gisin made any more sense but, for once, numbers seemed graspable. The fear dissolved, and it all came alive – the elegance of the Fibonacci sequence, the fact that pi goes on and on and on, always.

It took me nearly seven years to get to this point. As Jay Carter-Coles asks at the ending of Rife Magazine/BFI Film Academy’s documentary, ‘Finding X’, ‘How do we modernise the way we learn?’

Research is being put into how maths can be taught more effectively. JUMP is one such programme. As founder John Mighton told the New York Times, ‘Very early in school, many kids get the idea that they’re not in the smart group, especially in math. We kind of force a choice on them: to decide that either they’re dumb or math is dumb’. JUMP tackles that issue by breaking maths questions into tiny, tiny sections.

‘Imagine you’re playing a game for money and you lost seven dollars and gained five,’ Mighton explained. ‘Don’t give me a number. Just tell me: Is that a good day or a bad day?’

The results of JUMP have been great so far. And for the rest of us without a classroom to go to? I suggest starting with this: numbers are not snakes.

What do you think? Should we be learning more life skills? Should school subjects have a real world context?

Let us know on Twitter + Facebook = conversation.

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