Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The irony of math

As I read this recent study on college students and mathematical anxiety, it reminded me of me. Growing up, math grew to be my least favorite subject. Whether it was due to disliking the subject or because it wound up becoming my weakest, is hard to say. I think my worst fear was being called up to the blackboard to calculate a problem and being WRONG. Sometimes I was, sometimes I wasn't, but whatever happened, I never gained any confidence in math.

Then, in college, I took a calculus course my freshman year. I barely passed. It was my worst grade in college and significantly dropped my GPA. I had to work incredibly hard to bring it back up. In retrospect, I know I should have retaken the class with a different professor, but both my pride and hatred of math stopped me at the time. After that, I really developed a phobia to math and now the thought of taking any standardized test in that subject just nauseates me.

What I find incredibly ironic about all this is how math has become an essential part of my life the last 13 years via the eating disorder. Hasn't this been the case for many of us despite whether you may consider yourself a "sciencey" person or an "artsy" person?

The problems like" if Jane is X height, and her brother, Jeff, is 4 inches taller, and Jane's friend Sarah is two inches shorter than Jane, how tall is Sarah," are no longer relevant. Instead, it's "if I eat X amount of calories in this food, and Y number in this food, then I need to exercise this amount to burn X + Y amount. And if I don't make that amount, then I need to subtract X calories of food for tomorrow."

Does this sound familiar?

We all know weights, calories, sizes, repetitions, etc. are all numbers. But did we ever think of it as math (though our bodies do not necessarily work on a linear system)? I guess it feels so juxtaposing to me since I have such a dislike for the subject.

The other thing thing is that if you look at a description of mathematical anxiety, it says (according to the article above),
"Mathematical anxiety appears through a series of symptoms "such as tension, nervousness, concern, worry, edginess, impatience, confusion, fear and mental block" when dealing with the subject of mathematics."

Anyone see else how the substitution for "eating disorder around food" could be found in that description?
Do other people see the irony in this? Are there other math phobic people out there who also gravitate towards numbers?

6 comments:

Sar said...

I was thinking about this the other day, at work, when I was trying to balance some timesheets (hours & minutes adding up). I struggled to get my head round adding up basic numbers and was getting cross in my head, with the finance girl, for asking me to do this job to help her out- I thought 'I'm crap at Maths, I hate it'- then stopped and thought about how from the minute I wake to sleep, all I do is add, add, add and re-add (to check i've not added wrong & consumed extra- :(
day in & out, for like 15 years. And the speed and efficiency of this process and the fact that I'm working or concentrating on something else at the same time, makes it INCREDIBLY ironic! I'm glad you did this post, as I did wander if anyone else had experienced the MATHS paradox.

Zandria said...

You're right -- it's pretty interesting how a school-subject we previously had no interest in can suddenly become such a big part of our lives. But it also makes sense because those numbers can become such a part of people's lives.

emmy. said...

It's funny because I was quite the opposite. I have always loved math and numbers and finding variables, and the like. That possibly made me all the more prone to my attraction to applying food to the equation.

Kim said...

Like Emmy, I always liked math, so I think that's part of the reason I gravitated toward the uber-calculating that comes with anorexia. Still, I'm a writer, so I guess I have some right brain/left brain confusion going on. In any case, the mathematical anxiety description is VERY interesting. Even as I add more foods and feel better about recovery, I still have that anxiety...

Kara said...

Great post!!!

Tiptoe said...

Sar, glad I'm not the only one to have thought about this.

Zandria, yes, these numbers do make big differences unfortunately. Hopefully, we can all let go of them.

Emmy and Kim, it makes sense too that those who like numbers are gravitated towards EDs. I'd suspect even with scientists, there could be a big factor in formulating every detail of your caloric count/exercise expenditure.

Kara, glad you enjoyed it.