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Behav Brain Funct. 2019 Mar 18;15(1):4. doi: 10.1186/s12993-019-0155-1.

Anticipation of difficult tasks: neural correlates of negative emotions and emotion regulation.

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Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien, Tübingen, Germany.
LEAD Graduate School and Research Network, University of Tuebingen, Tübingen, Germany.
Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien, Tübingen, Germany.
LEAD Graduate School and Research Network, University of Tuebingen, Tübingen, Germany.
Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University of Tuebingen, Tübingen, Germany.
Department of Psychology, University of Tuebingen, Tübingen, Germany.
Department of Neurology, University Hospital, RWTH Aachen University, Aachen, Germany.



Difficult cognitive tasks are often associated with negative feelings. This can be already the case for the mere anticipation of having to do a difficult task. For the case of difficult math tasks, it was recently suggested that such a negative emotional response may be exclusive to highly math-anxious individuals. However, it is also conceivable that negative emotional responses simply reflect that math is perceived as difficult. Here we investigated whether non-math-anxious individuals also experience negative emotional responses when anticipating to do difficult math tasks.


We compared brain activation following the presentation of a numerical cue indicating either difficult or easy upcoming proportion magnitude comparison tasks.


Comparable to previous results for highly math-anxious individuals we observed a network associated with negative emotions to be activated in non-math-anxious individuals when facing cues indicating a difficult upcoming task. Importantly, however, math anxiety scores did not predict the neural response. Furthermore, we observed activation in areas associated with processes of cognitive control areas such as anterior cingulate cortex, which were suggested to play a key role in emotion regulation.


Activation in the emotion processing network was observed when anticipating an upcoming difficult (math) task. However, this activation was not predicted by individual' degree of math anxiety. Therefore, we suggest that negative emotional responses to difficult math tasks might be a rather common reaction not specific to math-anxious individuals. Whether or not this initial negative response impairs math performance, however, might depend on the ability to regulate those emotions effectively.


Cognition and emotion; Difficult math; Emotion regulation; Task difficulty; fMRI

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