“Fear of Getting Fat Seen in Healthy Women’s Brain Scans”

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.

The NEH Responds

You may recall our stories about a philosopher and single mother who was accepted to an NEH summer seminar then given 12 hours to put in place childcare arrangements on another continent that would satisfy the seminar organisers. The story got a lot of attention. The philosopher in question contacted the NEH, who fairly quickly assured her that the demand was at odds with their policies and that she was guaranteed of a place on the seminar. But many philosophers felt that, given the publicity the event had received, a public NEH response was called for– which would make clear to potential applicants (and organisers!) that the NEH was firmly opposed to such demands. (And which would also make clear that these weren’t just unfounded internet rumours.) And so, many philosophers wrote letters to the NEH to this effect. (This wasn’t circulated on blogs, because we wanted to keep the philosopher’s name unsearchable.)

I don’t know if the NEH has formally issued a public statement, but as one of the letter-writers I’ve now had a reply, and there’s no request for confidentiality. So I figure it’s OK to publicise it. Here it is:

The National Endowment for the Humanities has apologized to Professor
[X] and is in the process of resolving this issue to her
satisfaction. We have assured her that she is welcome to attend the
institute to which she applied and, at her request, have also extended
the deadline to make it possible for her to apply to another seminar if
she so chooses.

The NEH does not discriminate against applicants for our summer
institutes or any other grant programs on the basis of sex, race, color,
national origin, age, or disability. Asking an applicant to provide
information regarding child care is inappropriate and should have no
bearing on the selection process. Qualified applicants who tell the NEH
that they will participate full time in our programs should be taken at
their word.

Further update: The NEH plans to contact Inside Higher Ed, and they’ve given Prof X permission to circulate all their correspondence with her as she sees fit. Oh, and it’s the chair of the NEH who is emailing her on this. Yeah!

Earthquakes: blame the women

Thanks to EM and AP for thisul
pp one

Promiscuous women are responsible for earthquakes, a senior Iranian cleric has said.Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi told worshippers in Tehran last Friday that they had to stick to strict codes of modesty to protect themselves. “Many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray and spread adultery in society which increases earthquakes,” he said.

We can only imagine what the women in Iceland must have been doing.

Viola Desmond: A Canadian Hero

Most Americans know the story of Rosa Parks but few Canadians know the story of Viola Desmond. Racial segregation in Canada was mostly a matter of policy, not law, but that didn’t make it any less real. Viola Desmond was arrested refusing to leave her seat in the floor section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow before being carried out by a police officer and the theatre’s manager. This was in 1946, nine years before Ms. Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Desmond, who died in 1965, received a posthumous pardon last week from Nova Scotia, a declaration that the conviction registered against her was unjust. An editorial in the Globe and Mail tells the story, concluding “Viola Desmond was a woman of courage and vision, who stood up to injustice, and left her mark on the country. Next time you hear the name Rosa Parks, think – ah, the American Viola Desmond.” The Globe and Mail story is here.