Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Body image and Female Brain

I discovered a gem of a website and discovered this:

“Do I look fat in those pants?” is a question many women ask their husbands at home before deciding to go out in their choice of clothing. What happens in the husband’s brain when he hears this question is akin to going off and the most wide scale panic response. Many men would rather face an enemy in the battlefield than face this question during a calm evening. The correct answer whether she does look fat or not is, “don’t be ridiculous honey, you look fantastic”. Obviously the truth of this statement is irrelevant. If he wants the evening to remain calm, he must produce this answer or else sleep with one eye open for the next few months.
As it turns out, eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, which have been associated with concerns about body image and size are estimated to be about 10 times more common in women than men. What is it that makes women more victims to these eating disorders? A possible reason that has been proposed goes back to the differences in brain function. It seems that women might be processing information about their body image quite differently than men.
In a study published by the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2005, a team of researchers sought to detect gender differences in brain activation during the processing of unpleasant words concerning body image. 13 men and 13 women, all of which were 25 years old and physically, as well as psychologically healthy were recruited to participate in this study. Each participant underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging tests to assess brain activity during an emotional decision task. Brain activity was recorded while they were presented with a series of pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant words concerning body image. In addition to the brain imaging, the participants were also asked to rate the words for how unpleasant they were on a scale from 1 (very unpleasant) to 7 (very pleasant).
The results from the rating of words by men and women showed both to have a similar assessment of the degree of unpleasantness. In other words, both men and women have similar initial psychological perceptions when it comes to how they assess unpleasant words describing their body image. However, brain activation was significantly different between both genders.
In response to unpleasant words, men had their brains record activity in the left hippocampus, left superior temporal gyrus, left fusiform gyrus and left medial frontal gyrus. These regions of the brain have roles in perception of emotions and word and number recognition. They also play important roles in face and body recognition.
Women brains on the other hand had their brains record activity in the left parahippocampal gyrus including amygdala, left thalamus and right caudate body. These brain regions are responsible for recording memories of emotional reactions and play a role in relating the transmission of information regarding worrying events.
Taken together, it seems that when men are told unpleasant information about their body image, their brain response is more about assessing external factors relating to the person speaking to them. Women on the other hand develop an emotional response that is stored and coded in their brain, which internalizes the unpleasant information in a way that translates to a constant reflection onwhat has been said about their body image. Hence, many men are able to continue eating their burger as they receive a comment about how much chubbier they have become, while women will skip dinner for a week if one hesitates to answer the question, “do I look fat in those pants?”
The medial prefrontal cortex, which was only activated in men in response to unpleasant words, has been implicated to have a role in emotional processing. Recent studies have shown this area to be active when people turn their attention inwards to assess self-relevant attributes or emotional awareness. What is interesting about this region, is its connections to areas of the brain that deal with our emotional response. This makes the medial prefrontal cortex an interaction zone between emotional and cognitive processing. What seems to be the case is that this region may have a role in controlling the emotional response in the brain.
So what it all boils down to is that having a structure like the amygdala become active in response to unpleasant words exclusively in women, makes them have a more emotional response. On the other hand, having the medial prefrontal cortex activated exclusively in men, makes them have a more cognitive response to unpleasant words about their body image. This in turn translates into women caring way more about how they look than men do.
While this study, as well as others, is giving us an explanation to why women are more sensitive to what is said about their body image, it is definitely not settling for men out there when they are asked, “do I look fat in those pants?” Nevertheless, knowing that you are physiologically blocked from being able to reason this out with your wife, you should just memorize the right response, “you’ve never looked skinnier in those pants sweetheart!”
Mohamed Ghilan
UVic Neuroscience


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