Get happier, more understanding, by watching this season
New research finds that seeing individuals with different bodies, such as The Bachelor‘s Sarah Herron, a contestant this season, who was born with a foreshortened left arm, causes the brain to work hard to understand them when watching them in action.
“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,” says Sook-Lei Liew, the lead author of a paper on the study.
The study monitored the brains of 19 typically developed individuals watching 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 part of the brain’s motor network responsible for picking up objects by hand is activated by simply watching another person—but the surprising thing is the brain is 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,” fellow researcher Aziz-Zadeh says. “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 exposure to the residual-limbed woman increased, brain activity returned to a level comparable to when they were watching typically developed individuals, suggesting that increased visual exposure improves understanding.
“Stigma is one of the main challenges for people with physical differences,” Liew says. “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.”