“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.

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

  1. I wonder if it was in the informed consent form for those women that due to the outcome of the research, women in general would be ridiculed. Maybe there should be more about this stuff in consent forms.

  2. As per the mention of Freud, the typical Freudian double bind against women is that if you take abuse seriously, you are nuts, since your mind is obviously in distress. If you do not take it seriously, you are sane — but you still have to suffer the consequences of the abuse, so it is a very tough “sanity”.

  3. Hippocampa, I think you know at least as much as I do about fMRI studies, but let me say that there are three worries I have about the disussion.

    1. Couldn’t the same general criticism be brought against studies of implicit bias? Nothing those with it say to themselves may look biased, but “deep down i nside” they are bigoted, according to the tests’ outcome. But the IAT, which times how quickly one associates positive and negative terms with racially stereotypical faces, is hardly a real-life task. As fas as asking people on a test about their opinions, there are lots of people with unconscious racial or gender biases who wouldn’t report any tint of any such attitudes. Maybe asking about their actions would bring it out, but I’m not sure. We’ve seen data – reported here – about biased peoplewho took themselves to be actively recruiting minorities.

    2. The authors do cite some background literature to support their focus on themPFC:

    Recent fMRI paradigms have been developed in order to examine self-referential information processing. One common approach is to elicit conditions in which a subject actively engages in awareness of the self and/or the self’s relationship to a third-person. Although several brain areas have been shown to be activated in these studies, the single brain region most consistently implicated in self-referential and self-evaluative thought is by far the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), particularly its anterior portions (D’Argembeau et al., 2007 A. D’Argembeau, P. Ruby, F. Collette, C. Degueldre, E. Balteau and A. Luxen et al., Distinct regions of the medial prefrontal cortex are associated with self-referential processing and perspective taking, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 19 (6) (2007), pp. 935–944.[D’Argembeau et al., 2007], [Heatherton et al., 2006], [Kelley et al., 2002], [Mitchell et al., 2005], [Ochsner et al., 2005], [Vogeley et al., 2004], [Yoshimura et al., 2009] and [Zysset et al., 2002]).

    One influential and representative study on the neural correlates of self-reflection, for example, is described by Zysset et al. (2002) in the context of memory retrieval. … Compared to a baseline task, the episodic and evaluative tasks, but not the semantic task, both showed significant mPFC activation, with a greater anterior extent of activation for the evaluative task. Additionally, significant activation was found bilaterally in the precuneus, an area with strong direct corticocortical ties to the mPFC.

    3. I gather that the idea was that the participants would be shown a picture of a person who would count as much bigger than the socially admired size, and someone closer to the ideal, and then imagine someone saying they were like the person pictured. That doesn’t seem too odd to me; I can pretty easily imagine combing my hair in the bathroom at a party and then overhearing someone say “Whatever happened to jj; she used to be so trim and athletic looking, but now she’s looking like a weight-watchers “before” ad.” If I react strongly to that, doesn’t it cast some doubt on the idea that I’m indifferent to social standards of body size? (My example here has a flaw, of course, because I might just hate being the topic of gossip of any sort, but the participants weren’t asked to imagine gossips.)

  4. Valid points jj!
    Regarding point 1, I would love to see some good IAT/fMRI study, I don’t know if they are there yet. I am sure that there are implicit associations in the minds of the girls, but that was not what this study was measuring or looking for, so it is odd to infer from brain activity that there must have been anxiety. I can think of a design that would work to look into activation with biases.
    Regarding 2, yes, it is fair that they focused on the mPFC, and I am not surprised there was relevant activation in those areas, I don’t have any problems with that.
    With regards to 3, the jump from activation in the mPFC to anxiety is unwarranted, they don’t make that leap in the article, but it’s in all those popular articles about this research.
    Much more could have been said if the researchers would have asked the participants to fill in the questionnaire again, as unfortunately the first one got lost etc. Could get a clue from the difference in the answers whether they actually were more concerned than they initially indicated. I can imagine that the priming effect of doing the imagining exercise in the MRI would show in the answers to that questionnaire.

  5. Hippocampa, I think you are right about the anxiety part. I was going to look through the article to see if they said anything helpful, but I don’t really want to. :)

  6. We don’t need fancy MRI studies to tell us what Aristotle knew about women, amirite?!
    My question about all studies of this type is this: how can any conclusions be drawn with such a small n, and drawn from the same environment? I admit that I am more accustomed to social science research, so I’m way out of my league here. But do brain researchers assume that brains are identical to the extent that the brains of 10 or 20 women from 17-22 years of age at the same college in the same country are sufficiently representative of women’s brains as such? Maybe this assumption is fine; it seems bizarre to me. But then I have some of the same skepticism of what is often called ‘science’ that jj seems to of what is often called ‘freudian’ ;)

  7. sk: You might be interested on our post on something forthcoming (still, I think) in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. The idea is that a lot of recent work is w.e.i.r.d – done on students from western, educated, industrialized, rich, developed countries. Weird people are not typical of the whole world. I also agree with the worries about small numbers, and I know some fMRI researchers have much larger samples. fMRI time is, however, hideously expensive if you are buying time; the machines and their maintenance are also hideously expensive if you have your own.

    It could be a very bad idea to accept anything as “conclusive” from these studies unless is coheres with a lot of other work, perhaps especially behavioral studies. I think that might be something else Hippocampa is getting at.

    Let me also stress her point about anxiety. People seem to be happy about using these full terms up and down the biological scale, as though anxiety might be found in a petri dish.

    There’s going to be a volume of Neurofeminism coming out in the not too distant function which may pick up on some of this.

  8. Love how they jump to bad conclusions about women! Now isn’t that the type of science that brought us out of the dark ages? /sarcasm

    Great job pointing out the junk science. Small study, half square design. I’m sure there’s a dozen other mistakes that were made.

    The first conclusion I jumped to was that the males have bad imaginations!

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