Sometimes it seems like the world is made of two kinds of people.
No, not men and women, but those who can handle mathematics, and those who are terrified of it.
Indeed, math anxiety, as it's called, is more common than stage fright. You run into people all the time who say, "I'm terrible at math," and most of them are! Lots of Americans report that they have no clue, now that they're several years out of school, how to figure the area of a triangle. Some cannot even make simple change for a dollar. In part, that's because machines do a lot of our math for us. Even if the charge at the store is 99 cents, and you give the clerk a dollar, he or she will invariably look at the read-out on the cash register screen to be sure it's just one cent that you get back.
Why does math seem to come easily to some folks and baffle others? Studies at Cornell University have shown that some people would rather write a long essay, for instance, than be put on the spot to come up with the correct answer to a math problem. They'd even prefer to make a speech than to go to the blackboard and add and subtract numbers in front of others. Children who've done it and come up with wrong answers often enough can develop a lifetime phobia for math.
On the Web site About.com, Deb Russell wrote recently that a lot of myths contribute to math anxiety. And myths, you'll remember, are not true.
It's not true, research has shown, that you're born with a mathematics gene and either get math or you don't. It's not true that men are inherently better at math than women. And it's not true that so-called right-brained people who are extremely artistic or creative or sensitive just cannot master math.
Russell lists several ways to overcome math anxiety. One is to practice, practice, practice: be persistent. Another is to ask lots of questions of an instructor and to demand illustrations and demonstrations and not just repetitive drills.
And if all else fails: hire a tutor!
Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.