Learn to be more understanding by watching The Bachelor (this season, anyway)

January 23, 2013, University of Southern California

A new USC study finds evidence suggesting that the brain works hard to understand those who have different bodies when watching them in action.

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 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.

Liew, now a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institutes of Health, completed the research while she was a doctorate student at USC, working with Tong Sheng, a fellow graduate student, and Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, an assistant professor at the USC Dornsife Brain and Creativity Institute and the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy.

Liew, Sheng and Aziz-Zadeh monitored the brains of 19 typically developed individuals using () while showing them a series of video clips. First they showed a typically developed person picking up objects and then a woman born without complete arms using her residual limbs to perform the same tasks.

The fMRI scans showed that parts of the motor network responsible for picking up objects by hand are activated when simply watching another person performing the task – of participants attempting to use their own body representations to represent the people they are watching on screen.

The thing that surprised the researchers was that same part of the motor network was activated to a greater degree when watching residual limbs doing the same activity. Participants' brains worked overtime to process the use of a type of limb that they did not have.

"Interestingly, we found that individual differences in trait empathy affected the result," Aziz-Zadeh said. "That is, individuals who scored higher in their ability to empathize with other people showed more activity in motor regions when observing actions made by residual limbs."

Further, when shown more clips of the woman with a residual limb—clips that lasted minutes instead of seconds—the fMRI scans showed similar motor network activity, which returned to a level comparable to when they were watching typically developed individuals, suggesting that increased visual exposure improved understanding.

"Stigma is one of the main challenges for people with physical differences," Liew said. "We need to examine why stigmas exist and what we can do to alleviate them. Learning about disabilities visually is one way that we can begin to map their experiences onto our own brains."

Explore further: Researchers explore the source of empathy in the brain

Related Stories

Researchers explore the source of empathy in the brain

July 15, 2011
Your brain works hard to help understand your fellow person – no matter how different they may be.

Whether we like someone affects how our brain processes movement

October 6, 2012
Hate the Lakers? Do the Celtics make you want to hurl? Whether you like someone can affect how your brain processes their actions, according to new research from the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC.

Scientists search for source of creativity: Calling it a 'right brain' phenomenon is too simple, researchers say

March 5, 2012
It takes two to tango. Two hemispheres of your brain, that is.

Scientists probe connection between sight and touch in the brain

September 8, 2011
Shakespeare famously referred to "the mind's eye," but scientists at USC now have also identified a "mind's touch."

Recommended for you

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...

Recording a thought's fleeting trip through the brain

January 17, 2018
University of California, Berkeley neuroscientists have tracked the progress of a thought through the brain, showing clearly how the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain coordinates activity to help us act in response ...

Midbrain 'start neurons' control whether we walk or run

January 17, 2018
Locomotion comprises the most fundamental movements we perform. It is a complex sequence from initiating the first step, to stopping when we reach our goal. At the same time, locomotion is executed at different speeds to ...

Miles Davis is not Mozart: The brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently

January 16, 2018
Keith Jarret, world-famous jazz pianist, once answered in an interview when asked if he would ever be interested in doing a concert where he would play both jazz and classical music: "No, that's hilarious. [...] It's like ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.