And I call that Poppycock Extraordinaire. There is a lot of bad science out there, but when it’s something like this it becomes sort of worrisome.
From the popular science report:
“These women have no history of eating disorders and project an attitude that they don’t care about body image,” said Mark Allen, a BYU neuroscientist. “Yet under the surface is an anxiety about getting fat and the centrality of body image to self.”
And further down:
When anorexic and bulimic women view an overweight stranger, the brain’s self-reflection center — known as the medial prefrontal cortex — lights up in ways that suggest extreme unhappiness and in some cases, self-loathing.
When I read hogwash like that it is always good to dig up the actual article, since popular media don’t always get it right (even though they did quote the researcher, apparently). I don’t know of any self respecting neuroscientist who would still speak in terms of brain centres, but heck, that could be popular interpretation too.
This is the reference to the actual article:
Owens, T.E., Allen, M.D. & Spangler, D.L., 2010. An fMRI study of self-reflection about body image: Sex differences. Personality and Individual Differences. (you’d probably need to log in to actually access the article, so my apologies to those who don’t have access to this journal).
What they did is the following:
In this study, 10 females and nine males viewed images of gender-matched bodies of either an overweight body type or a thin body type while undergoing functional MRI (fMRI) scanning. While viewing these images, participants were instructed to make evaluations of their own bodies in relation to the images displayed.
The 19 participants of this study (aged 18-30) all had a normal BMI (between 18 and 25) and what is important is that they all filled out the Eating Disorder Diagnostics Scale questionnaire and in particular, all participants scored very low on the weight/bodyconcern subsection of this EDDS. In the MRI scanner they were presented with images of either clearly overweight or slender (but not noticably underweight) people.
Upon viewing each image, they were instructed to ‘‘Imagine that someone is comparing your body to the body of the woman/man you see in the picture. That is, imagine someone is saying ‘your body looks like hers/his’”. Participants viewed images from their own sex only. For the control condition, subjects were instructed to simply attend to the images.
What they found was that the women did show a significant increase in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC, see image on the right) compared to men when they had to imagine themselves to be overweight, but not when they had to imagine themselves being slender. From previous research, it is known that this is “the single brain region most consistently implicated in self-referential and self-evaluative thought”. In another popular science article, the researcher is quoted to say that in women with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, this region is active too, but a bit more pronounced.
There is no mention in the article whatsoever about activation in the amygdala, which is curious, because contrary to the vague correlates with the mPFC, it is a lot more uncontested that anxiety is connected to activation of the amygdala. Although the mPFC appears to play some role in connecting experiences with emotions it is a very odd leap to say that activity in that region therefore must indicate anxiety.
This research has only a half square design. What is missing is overweight men and women with similar scores on the EDDS in similar conditions. But nevertheless, extrapolations are made from non overweight women’s brain patterns to those who are overweight. The problem with the small number of subjects is a universal problem with fMRI research and the problem with the age group (it didn’t say in the article where they drew their sample from, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were psychology students: I participated in numerous ones myself when I was one) is also pretty universal.
The preposterous conclusion, though, is that despite the fact that those women scored low on the EDDS the researchers determined that deep down (how Freudian!) they are anxious about getting overweight, even though they don’t think so themselves, they don’t report so and they weren’t asked afterwards how they felt about having to imagine themselves to be overweight in order to confirm that.
Just because the brain lights up (averaged over those 10 girls) in a certain area (when they are made to imagine something, not some natural occurring condition), women must be anxious about this all the time. And I am not even breaching on the dubitability of inferences drawn from fMRI studies when it comes to “brain activation”.
I am curiously reminded of the stereotype of women insisting that their guy must be worried even though he says he isn’t. And then when he gets irked, the stereotype says that the woman should say, “see! you ARE worried about something or you wouldn’t have responded that way!”. Except these people are supposed to be objective scientists. Meh.