Do All Women Fear Being Fat? Check Their Brain Scans


Fat fear?Fat fear? A Bringham Young University (BYU) neuroscientist, a psychology professor, and a grad student were probably quite surprised at the completion of their research.  What they found was not exactly what they expected....

The neuroscientist, Mark Allen, and the psychology professor, Diane Spangler, had collaborated on a long-term project to improve treatment for women with eating disorders by monitoring their progress with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).  They monitored the women's brains in response to a variety of pictures.  What they found was that the images of women who were overweight caused the women's medial prefrontal cortex, the self-reflection center, to light up in a way that suggested disgust and self-loathing.

Then, to establish a control group, the researchers conducted fMRIs on women that did not have eating disorders and who appeared, by their performance on psychological tests, to have no particular problems with body image.  That's what the psychological tests indicated.

But the fMRIs of the "control" group also lit up in the medial prefrontal cortex, showing negative reactions to the images of heavy women, though not as strongly as the group with eating disorders. Finding this, the researchers went on to run their experiments on a group of men, whose results were as expected, pretty unremarkable.

Spangler speculated that the control group of women responded so negatively to the images because women are bombarded with messages telling them they must be thin, and those messages affect how all women view themselves.

"Many women learn that bodily appearance and thinness constitute what is important about them, and their brain responding reflects that," Spangler said. "I think it is an unfortunate and false idea to learn about oneself and does put one at greater risk for eating and mood disorders."

"It's like the plant in my office," she continued."It has the potential to grow in any direction, but actually only grows in the direction of the window -- the direction that receives the most reinforcement."


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