Viewing different bodies, staring at different bodies [who knows]

A new USC [link] study [1] 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, AbaGoffmanCloerkes 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. GoffmanCloerkes), their brains will light up. Before fetishists start to stare and get drawn into their own cycles of weirdness (cf. Abaetc.), 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 ...
  • least from point of view of a person that would get stared at ***.

As you can see from the article itself[1], 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.

[1] [doi] S. Liew, T. Sheng, and L. Aziz-Zadeh, "Experience with an amputee modulates one's own sensorimotor response during action observation," NeuroImage, vol. 69, pp. 138-145, 2013.
title = "Experience with an amputee modulates one's own sensorimotor response during action observation",
journal = {{NeuroImage}},
volume = "69",
number = "0",
pages = "138 - 145",
year = "2013",
note = "",
issn = "1053-8119",
doi = "10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.12.028",
url = "",
author = "Sook-Lei Liew and Tong Sheng and Lisa Aziz-Zadeh",
keywords = "Action understanding",
keywords = "Visual experience",
keywords = "Body representation",
keywords = "Shared circuits",
keywords = "Action observation network",
keywords = "Mirror neurons"

Cite this article:
Wolf Schweitzer: - Viewing different bodies, staring at different bodies [who knows]; published 24/01/2013, 23:39; URL:

BibTeX: @MISC{schweitzer_wolf_1685684151, author = {Wolf Schweitzer}, title = {{ - Viewing different bodies, staring at different bodies [who knows]}}, month = {January}, year = {2013}, url = {} }

2 thoughts on “Viewing different bodies, staring at different bodies [who knows]

  1. Dear Mr. Wolf Schweitzer,

    I just read your response to our article in NeuroImage, and hope to offer a bit of clarification on what we had hoped to accomplish with it. I first apologize for anything that we did or wrote that was offensive, and I assure you that our intent was not to suggest people just blatantly, rudely or awkwardly stare at people who are physically different, although I see how that has emerged through the media write-ups and I am trying to remedy this in all future interviews. I am actually an occupational therapist also and have worked with a number of clients with a variety of physical differences, and I did this study because I realized that while I could maybe provide some assistance for my clients (who have both physical differences and movement disorders, etc) with daily activities or what have you, I couldn't do much of anything to help with social stigma once they went out in public.

    My real hope for this article was to advocate for greater inclusion of individuals with physical differences in mainstream media, or at least, advocate against discrimination for people with physical differences who wanted to be in media, as I see that as one way for people to get greater exposure, in a non-awkward way, to different types of people and bodies. I fully agree that no one wants to be stared at; I have experienced my own tiny episodes of that, and even in those small instances, I can feel just how horrible and objectifying and uncomfortable it can be. I can only imagine what many of my clients have to go through and was hoping this in some small way could be helpful in remedying that. When I answer media interviews, I try to make this point and bridge it to the solution of greater inclusion of people with physical differences in the media and greater conversation (NOT just staring) and attempts to understand one another between all sorts of different people. Unfortunately, as you can probably gather by now, I'm not great with words and I think that a lot of what I say gets cut out in the end to make a short and clean story. Unfortunately, what is left are these media pieces that say we should stare at anyone who is different. I've been trying to remedy that as much as possible.

    Regarding the scientific paper itself, we actually attempted to not include personal details for our kind volunteer who agreed to be videotaped for this study, for this purpose, to protect her privacy. We did the same for the woman who's hands we videotaped. We have done the same for other individuals with limb differences who have participated, and they appreciated it, but I understand that everyone has different preferences, and if you were a participant, we would do everything possible to respect your own wishes.

    And finally, I think you are completely right that we don't need fMRI to tell us this. The only things I thought that could be accomplished by doing the fMRI study were 1) providing some more evidence to advocate for people with physical differences, 2) hopefully open conversations about how to best lessen stigma for people with differences (which, really need to be led by people who have these personal experiences themselves, but hopefully this could provide a platform or jumping off point), and 3) to answer very basic science questions about the exact function of particular regions of the brain (unrelated to this discussion).

    I am so sorry that this study has been so offensive to you though, and would be happy to have a more detailed conversation with you, or have you post this letter on your site, or get advice from you about what you would like for me to tell the media - what you think would be more respectful and/or positive. That is my primary goal with this study, so I'm disappointed with myself that it didn't come across that way (and on the contrary, it seems to have done the opposite with you). I would welcome your feedback and suggestions and hope that you will take the trouble to tell me how I can be helpful, rather than hurtful.

    Thank you for your thoughtful and honest piece.

    Lei Liew

    1. Thank you for the clarification!

      First of all, I am not aware that personal wishes are part of a research protocol. If your protocol contains "1. educate participant, 2. have participant sign waiver / informed consent sheet, 3. ..", publishing about that proper research protocol will certainly require your paper to list "Material and methods" (...) "Participants: the participants' personal information is withheld due to privacy reasons. The disability contained (.. description ..)." etc. The Helsinki Declaration does require great clarity in using a written research protocol, and there must be clarity in writing, before the project is submitted to the ethics committee. Any information in relation to your - certainly nicely willing and cooperative - amputees inasmuch as *in what way* the Helsinki Declaration was concerned, should be part of the paper even more as you use fMRI studies which really require scrutiny about what is presented to the test watchers. Obviously, some disabled people might feel uncomfortable with staring - so, what precautions did you take, how was after care established? What, in terms of what there was to see, was there to see other than the disability - street clothing? Standardized / uniformed clothing? What did your ethics committee recommend about you going about the amputee(s)? After all you conduct a perceptive study, so even without releasing identifying material there are points that, in my view, should fill the "Materials and method" section. As I said above - any lab rat receives more comprehensive documentation than the amputee here. Ultimately, I see that also as a respect thing. Nothing fancy - just something to do, routinely. As one would do with other research participants.

      Secondly, this is just my opinion. Not more than that. And as that, I cannot see how the study presented here proves anything - not from where I am standing. When people watch disabled people, stare at me, stare at friends of me, they stare differently from when they look at non-disabled people. I can tell by their faces : ) Why the heavy machinery : ) That people with a stigma are stared at, to heart's contempt, is rather well known anyway - after all, circuses had freak shows for a (that!) reason. Not that I am not interested in what goes on in other people's heads - but why not be more specific : )

      How to best lessen stigma for people with disabilities? First, assume they are also humans, capable of deciding, judging and acting as reportable participants in a study. From the research I participated in so far, that aspect is essential. Also when I read some scientific papers, I might check their references and also I may raise an eyebrow when premises are flawed because no one cared to check the prior works by reading these papers. Generally, to achieve that (also as amputee) one is taken seriously just as a research board, or a parent, or any other person is taken seriously - that is a massive achievement for people with disabilities in my view.

      We have to accept that our acceptance of what we accept as normality is shrinking. Even "normal" people with mild overweight nowadays suffer more than ever; surgeries and drugs to "normalize" people have never been more hip than these days. So how to improve the situation for people with handicaps in relation to "lessening their stigma" is probably trying to run against ever increasing hurricanes of societal pressure if you talk about society. There is no way. There are forces at work that are massive. Amputees will be increasingly outcast if ever there is a trend. Like brand awareness, facts will not influence public perception at all. Having a celebrity or politician that has that handicap may help, having an extremely strong lobby that reacts every time an issue occurs helps - but other than that, public perception, or a "stigma", is hard to influence. Mostly, on a larger scale, impossible.

      What does work is self defense, and it works on an individual level. Which is what I am doing. If a person oversteps boundaries, e.g., such as staring at me - like, longer than a (situation dependent) adequate amount of time - it may well be they then encounter an (unplanned) reaction they might never forget. It is not my problem when others cannot behave, really - but I never understood why it should be me to suffer silently.

      But no other means to educate the public are "necessary" in my view. If ever normal non-disabled members of society *wanted* to behave politely and treat people around them - also with disabilities - with respect, they found a way to do so.

      What, in terms of "integrating" amputees into "non disabled society" would be of great interest however, would be research into these questions:

      1) When watching a person with visible handicap over time - hours, weeks, .. - , will the initially different fMRI findings that are there normalize? If only in some participants - what are the differences in these participants in terms of mental health, religion, age, sex, etc. etc. ?

      2) Use a mid-range or long-range time span for that also: in terms of equipping, dressing, making up amputees, wearing the one or other type or appearance of prosthesis - can fMRI be used as a tool to highlight what direction to go? Are skin colored prostheses better? Are well groomed amputees perceived with the same fMRI results faster than non-groomed amputees? Why is it that I am under the strong impression that my dark red prosthetic hand is less upsetting to others than my skin imitating hand? Is there an fMRI correlate to the Uncanny Curve?

      3) Stories. If you present a particular person with disability with story A, and then, with story B - in what way does the fMRI of the watchers change - if at all?

      4) Are brains of amputees different when getting stared at than brains of other (non disabled) people? In what way? How is the difference if any explained?

      I believe that information of that nature could be of help to the community as such. And to the prosthetic industry and stakeholders such as insurances.

      Kind regards, Wolf.

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