A new USC [link] study [bibcite key=liew2012] is proposed to show that watching different bodies causes the brain's network to process hard.
Now, who'd a thunk that. I cannot say that comes as a surprise. While the study appears to examine what happens while the brain "viewed" "different" bodies, we already have some good ideas about what happens after the brain "viewed" "different" bodies.
It is necessarily so, that, from experience alone, we must conclude that those brains went absolutely ape shit before whatever it is that is documented here: see, for example, Aba, Goffman, Cloerkes or whoever else. All these often quite visible reactions to "viewing" "different" bodies require prior brain activity.
More explicitly, before a person starts to feel stressed by an amputee's presence, and before they start to exhibit sweating, aversion, disgust, helplessness or whatnot (cf. Goffman, Cloerkes), their brains will light up. Before fetishists start to stare and get drawn into their own cycles of weirdness (cf. Aba, etc.), these individuals' brains - as we must assume - will start to spark and jolt. So even without fMRI, yes, there is them things going on for sure in them brains of them people staring at them amputees. We knew that.
It is in this day and age that they still go there and apply fMRI to these brains and, the results seem to show just that. But let us have a closer look what there is they really want to tell us.
From the news blurb:
According to the study's lead author, the finding supports initiatives to include more individuals with physical differences in mainstream media -- such as Sarah Herron, a contestant on ABC's The Bachelor this season, who was born with a foreshortened left arm. "Generally, it's considered impolite to stare. But what these results suggest is that we need to look. It's through this visual experience that we're able to make sense of those different from ourselves," said Sook-Lei Liew, who is the lead author of a paper on the research that appeared online this month in NeuroImage.
The study, in its essence, does not the mildest bit discriminate cold-hearted voyeurism from emphatic social learning experiences. From my personal experience, there never ever was any constructive social contact with just about anybody whose facial expression and stare matched that what the study suggests - overwhelmed visual activity when getting caught up in a baroque stare. Much rather, the folks where overwhelmed along the lines outlined above - see also references given - and subsequent attempts to do this or that followed these lines most of the time if not always. So, allowing ample stares as such, from a practical viewpoint, is not what is required to help others.
To no surprise it is not at all conclusive from that research that, as Sook-Lei Liew proposes,...
- that brains that get visually activated and overloaded with information ...
- ...that appears to be hard to process as it is unusual or disturbing ...
- ... necessarily take away beneficial plans, social improvements or any other result,...
- ...that would be useful ...
- ...at least from point of view of a person that would get stared at ***.
As you can see from the article itself[bibcite key=liew2012], the study does in fact not find any more information than we already knew by observation and inference:
Observing actions performed by others engages one's own sensorimotor regions, typically with greater activity for actions within one's own motor abilities or for which one has prior experience. However, it is unclear how experience modulates the neural response during the observation of impossible actions, beyond one's own abilities. Using fMRI, we scanned typically-developed participants as they observed actions performed by a novel biological effector (the residual limb of a woman born without arms) and a familiar biological effector (a hand). Participants initially demonstrated greater activity in the bilateral inferior and superior parietal cortices when observing actions made by the residual limb compared to the hand, with more empathic participants activating the right inferior parietal lobule, corresponding to the posterior component of the action observation network, more strongly. Activity in the parietal regions may indicate matching the kinematics of a novel effector to one's own existing sensorimotor system, a process that may be more active in more empathic individuals. Participants then received extended visual exposure to each effector, after which they showed little difference between activation in response to residual limb compared to hand actions, only in the right superior parietal lobule. This suggests that visual experience may attenuate the difference between how residual limb and hand actions are represented using one's own body representations, allowing us to flexibly map physically different others onto our own body representations.
So most probably, that study and its journalistic interpretations will be now used to "justify" more staring at amputees.
But that is not what they want to tell us, because that is hardly news.
Really they tell us that amputees can be stared at and be treated like objects.
In the "Material and method" section, the amputee in question finds no mention. Surely she must be the main feature of the study - as there was no one else, really, to "observe" - but the authors found it appropriate to not even detail anything about her. Just to remind you - normally, scientific studies will list rats, dogs, cell cultures, pipettes, computer software, anything remotely associated with the study at hand. But the amputee? Also, the study does not exhibit any sentence clarifying whether the amputee woman that was used by the researchers to get 19 "healthy" subjects to stare at also, herself, had in fact consented with the study. Seeing as if the 19 subjects were "healthy", was the amputee ill? Or were they not amputees? Being healthy does not mean they have all limbs. How, really, does the dichotomy "healthy" delineate against missing a limb? Also, other aspects are of relevance in psychological observation studies; was she wearing make-up or was she dressed at all? Did she have concomitant neurological issues that may have complicated her appearance? - I mean, we really have to assume that the amputee did consent to being stared at by 19 "healthy" volunteers - but no effort was made by the authors to state anything remotely related to that fact. Any lab rat gets more verbal attention, just to make that point here. Personally, I also question the sanity of any "healthy" volunteer that consents to intensely stare at an amputee for extended periods of time given that the act itself is definitely not appropriate socially. It is not a surprise in my view that the amputee woman is absent from all these deliberations in the "method and material" section of the paper, and we will never know if she was healthy or ill. From the issue as such and how it was handled here, we learn that the authors believe that one may use amputees as visual objects to stare at without following any particular protocol and without even considering them as "method", leave alone "material", and still be, in their own words, "in accordance with the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki". And that is a key issue here. This study, definitely, to me, has the emotional footprint that I would find very typical for a study made by devotees - because devotees will without blinking an eye trade amputees as objects, they will without a blink of an eye argue for a high permissibility for anything voyeuristic, at least as long as it involves them staring at us, and they always will pretend that they are emphatic when, in fact, we can read their output (see above) and show them otherwise. That is what, from where I am standing, that study really tells us. Also, devotees love to stare at amputees but rarely ever productively deal with the fact that they might be getting stared back at. I tried that. Staring back at devotees also makes my fMRI go earthquake. If ever amputees are considered human by devotees, then this is tit for tat and all sweet and dandy. But as long as they regard amputees as subhumans, we need to be explained over and over again that we'd be lost without devotees simply because we probably do not have brains, and without brains, no identity and without identity no right also to be mentioned in the "materials" section. If these authors describe their amputee with less dignity than researchers usually describe a lab rat, where do they take the assumption they need to be treated just about any differently? For this text, a cup, coffee beans, tap water, the interwebs, connections, a keyboard, and an amputee not otherwise specified were used, but no brain or fMRI were required. This was mere reflex action.
Maybe another aspect to consider as to why these authors are that way is because the study was made in California, home of the AMC Freakshow idea. Maybe it was a Circus study.
Also when watching Circus acts, fMRI will probably show that our brains do things.