Science and sex objects

A group of psychologists have discovered that when men (or perhaps I should say, the men involved in the experiment) look at pictures of scantily clad women, the pre-motor cortex lights up. This region of the brain has a role to play in action and lit up when the men looked at DIY tools. After looking at the pictures, some of the men had less activity in the pre-frontal cortex and other regions of the brain responsible for empathy and understanding others. Psychologists suggest that one explanation of the findings is that the men saw the women in the pictures as things to be immediately acted on, and that the pictures had an impact – for some of the men – on how they saw women afterwards. Rather than seeing them as humans to interact with, they were more inclined to see them as objects. This is pretty interesting stuff, but I have lots of questions about it. The first thing that strikes me is that the ‘mirror system’, which some theorists have suggested is what underlies our capacity to understand others’ behaviour is identifiable with/located in the pre-motor cortex. Neurons fire in the mirror system whether someone is preparing to act oneself, or watching another acting. The pre-motor cortex is thus – as I understand it – implicated in the functioning of at least certain forms of empathy. It is involved in seeing others as agents. The pre-motor cortex fires when people look at tools because they are objects for action. But the fact that it also fires when looking at people doesn’t in itself show that the perceiver also sees them as objects for action. The perceiver may be seeing them as an agent. Also, looking at a photo of a woman is not the same as looking at a woman. A photo is an image, it is not alive, it is not sentient, and one cannot interact with it. Even if the studies show that the men were reacting to the photos as objects for action – rather than people – this doesn’t show that they then view real live women in that way. But what do you think? Read the Guardian report here. Via Feministing.

10 thoughts on “Science and sex objects

  1. did they introduce them to actual women afterward, and monitor brain activity whilst doing so? i don’t understand where the conclusion about looking at the pics changing the way they saw real women comes from. (?)

  2. I wonder if similar tests have been performed on women viewing pictures of men. If so, what were the results?

    Or, is it not considered relevant to study women’s reactions to these stimuli, as it is well established that a woman would never objectify another. (Smell that? That’s sarcasm)

  3. Interestingly, according to the Guardian article, the very respected researcher, Susan Fiske, interprets the results as being about viewing pictures.

    Mirror neurons in the pre-motor cortex are concerned with actions; since the women viewed aren’t moving, it is more likely the neurons signal the men’s tendency to act. Since part of what makes us react to others empathetically as subjects isn’t active, it seems to me to make good sense to hypothesize that the men are seeing women as objects.

    I think there’s a great tendency to view many inanimate objects in our environments as not having that much psychological effect on us unless we somehow really connect to them. If Fiske is right, though, the impact of sexy pictures may be to stimulate in men views of women that are hardly appropriate in lots of contexts, including professional ones.

    I’m not sure what the impact of pictures of handsome hulks would be on women, but it would be interesting to see which would be more influential: a handsome face or some ordinary guy in a situation in which he looks very powerful. I read somewhere that lots of women in the States are reporting having sexy dreams about Obama; he is elegantly attractive, I think, but it’s a good bet the cause has more to do with his current power.

  4. JJ – thanks. I was wondering if somehow seeing the women as ready to act would result in firing of mirror neurons. (I was kind of imagining that seeing someone partially undressed might result in seeing them as undressing, or getting ready to have sex – but now I come to write this down, I can see that it’s perhaps a bit far-fetched.)

  5. Monkey, now I understand your point and I don’t think it is silly at all. There is quite a bit of evidence that we in effect complete others’ actions in our brains. But I think the pictures that prompt such a reaction really do portray incomplete actions – e.g., someone obviously setting a table or clearing one off, to use a standard example. I got the sense the pictures weren’t like that though.

  6. I’m a bit aggravated at the theoretical leaps the psychologist is making to assume that men act the same way with women in person. I’m positive that men objectify and act on images of women, as well as women in the distance. However, I’m inclined to assume that all of this changes as soon as interaction with a real live person commences.

  7. Regarding the question of movement, I think it’s a good bet that videos of the women in question would provoke the same brain activity. I find the idea that men empathize more with women in pornographic movies than static pictures pretty unlikely.

    Then again, it’s quite possible that we’ve trained ourselves to repress that empathy in favor of the other “benefits” provided by such videos. This interpretation might help solve etherspirit’s concerns as well: perhaps it’s not that real-life women provoke brain activity that’s qualitatively different from that observed in the study; instead, maybe our social instincts suppress that activity in order to help us come across as a suave, in-control man rather than a perverted weirdo, heh.

  8. It never ceases to amaze me how Professional males will always make a connection between a single scientific experiment to an intuitive assumption when it comes to sex oriented differences between men and women, like they have already established how men think or something. I’ve worked in healthcare too long, I have become jaded a little, but I see it happening ALL THE TIME in hospital’s and I shutter over this kind of subjectivity.

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