Friday, April 16, 2010

Fat and thin: It's all in your brain?

A new report from Brigham Young University suggests that women may be hardwired to worry about body image. Using functional MRI scanners, which record which parts of the brain light up while it's engaged in a task, researchers have discovered that women's brains react differently than men's to images of fat and thin. Study subjects, who were all thin, passed a screening test for eating disorders and so were presumed to have no overwhelming body image concerns.

When women were shown images of overweight women and told to imagine that someone commented that they looked like the woman in the image, a part of their brains that engages in self-reflection lit up. When looking at the images, says Mark Allen, a neuroscientist at BU, "women are actually engaging in an evaluation of who they are and whether they are worthwhile as a person. Even though women might claim to be well adjusted and not care about body issues, subconsciously they might care."

But couldn't this be the result of the overwhelming socialization American women experience on the subject of fat? Would the brains of women in a different culture--a culture that didn't put so much value on the thin ideal for women—light up the same way?

I'm not a neuroscientist, but I wonder if this study is flawed. Or maybe I simply don't want to accept that there's a biological limit to self-acceptance on this issue.

I'd love to hear what you think.

19 comments:

Lesley Porcelli said...

I'm confused. They asked the women to self-reflect, and then the self-reflect part of the brain lit up? How do they extrapolate that there's anything negative going on?

And how did it differ for men?

Harriet said...

Exactly. Unless I'm missing something, I'm not sure about this.

On the other hand, that part of men's brains did not light up. But maybe they're just less self-reflective in general.

Lesley Porcelli said...

I realized after I left this comment that you provided a link to the story about the study. Which I suppose clarifies the men part, but it also distinctly says that the part of the brain that processes negative feelings (or some such) lit up in bulimics but NOT in the control group of thin women.

I think the whole thing maybe illustrates some underlying misogyny, frankly...

Harriet said...

But none of the women were bulimic.

Lesley Porcelli said...

Yes, some were. It just said the reaction was "more strongly negative" for the bulimic women.

Harriet said...

Are we looking at the same study? I've got the actual study. I should bring it over and we can have tea and tear it shreds. Ha ha.

Lesley Porcelli said...

I'm not looking at the study, but at your link to the article that explains it. Maybe this is the problem!

I think I need some tea. I think many areas in my cortex aren't lighting up today that should be.

Lesley Porcelli said...

Anyway, your theory holds water (and doesn't contradict what's written here). Hardwiring does NOT necessarily imply that this phenomenon is present at birth; only that a lifetime of repeating-loop information has worked its way through those pathways. So it is quite likely that the study would yield different results in a culture that feels differently about fat.

700stories said...

honestly, I don't know if I can trust any scientific research that comes out of Brigham Young University. I'm aware that's probably prejudice on my part...

Also... here's how I interpret this.

Thin/average women are shown an image of an overweight women and are told to imagine someone said they looked like that. That's asking for self-reflection. And because this is obviously a false statement they are reflecting on, they are probably apt to reflect MORE... than if they were shown an image of someone of a similar body type/size/etc. That says to me that women are more linked to combine feelings with reasoning when faced with cognitive dissonance.

Whereas in their study they claim this didn't occur with men... so I would think that says male brains are wired to simply reason: "that is false", and not dwell in self-reflection of "why would someone say this" etc.

The fact women reflect more on something that is a false statement about themselves does not necessarily correlate with subconscious negative body image or that they would care if they were in fact overweight...

did that make sense? lol

Anonymous said...

This screams socialization! By "hardwired," all they seem to mean is that women had a brain reaction to what they were seeing. Normally when I hear "hardwired," I think of something that is programmed in us from birth. All this study seems to show (and I only looked at the link on Discovery News) is that our culture really screws women up regarding body acceptance, even when we are not consciously aware of it. And that I have no trouble believing.

Anonymous said...

But couldn't this be the result of the overwhelming socialization American women experience on the subject of fat? Would the brains of women in a different culture--a culture that didn't put so much value on the thin ideal for women—light up the same way?

I have not read study, but yes, absolutely, the brains of women in a different culture might differ. Every difference in behavior and cognition will be reflected in brain activity somehow. That doesn't mean that the differences in biology are due to genetic and not social factors - our socialization shape our biology to quite some degree.

Also, brain imaging studies tend to go too far in their interpretations. Just because a certain part of the brain is activated during one task/ process does not mean that this is THE brain area for this process - in fact, during a given task it is usual that different brain areas become more active compared to baseline (which also is hard to define) and it is quite difficult to pinpoint what each of these brain areas are actually doing. Identifying the single subcomponents of what is going on in the brain for sure is at this point practically impossible. Also, exact localization of processes in the brain is quite difficult also since each brain looks a bit differnt and you will have to use data from several subjects in a given study - so basically you need to "average" across brains that don't have the exact same topology.

We have good evidence for some things, but when it comes brain imaging research, very few things are written in stone yet. (I write this as a social psychologist who works closely with people using brain imaging techniques in their research - I am not an expert on interpreting brain imaging data, but I think my skepticism is somewhat justified. These are methods with great potential, but as all research methods they also have serious flaws.)

Jane said...

You know I'm a big fan of brain research but we need to be careful about leaping to conclusions about what those images mean.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-new-phrenology

Harriet said...

Oh Jane, can I hire you as my personal in-house librarian?

lyorn said...

So, women from how many different countries/cultures have they looked at? From many different social backgrounds? How many survivors of wars or famines? What are the youngest girls they have tested?

Also, have they actually built mind-reading machines yet, or have they only exactly mapped every single emotion or thought process to an area of the brain? Did they use the same imaging technique that could show the thoughts of a dead fish?

I'd have to read the original to find out, but the summary gives so strong just-so-story vibes that I think I won't bother.

Harriet said...

I will email the full study to anyone who wants it backchannel, so long as you don't make commercial use of it. The usual disclaimers apply.

Cammy said...

I think the cultural issue you brought up is the main caveat here. I'm guessing they used mostly white, middle-class American women, who have been exposed to similar media messages/pressures their entire lives. The results are relevant to that and not much else.

Bill Fabrey said...

I agree with Cammy and others. The problem with BYU's "corporate culture" as well as most everywhere else, is that most people (including scientists, except anthropologists) do not imagine that there are diverse cultures where such fat images would not necessarily conjure up negative self-examination. Even if it occurred to them, they would not know how to find such test subjects.

This sounds like pretty shallow research, although I haven't read it.

The majority of potential test subjects in Salt Lake City, if that is where the actual tests were conducted, are practicing Mormons. Whatever good you can say about the teachings of the church, one teaching has relevance here: The one that says that being fat is an abuse of the body you were given.

It also screens out those test subjects who exceed the weight and size limits of the MRI machine.

Peggy Elam, Ph.D. said...

I glanced at the research a couple of days ago, specifically to see their research population. If I remember correctly, the research participants were all described as having at least one year of college. I suspect the research was done with college sophomores, which is common in psychological research. (I believe psychology majors can get college credit for participating in psych research.) IMO, extrapolating from college-age women to ALL women is inherently problematic, as the college environment can be even more toxic to body image than the society at large.

Harriet said...

There appears to be a LOT wrong with this research.