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A new role for culture

Posted Aug 25 2008 2:48pm
Although this research doesn't directly relate to eating disorders, it did make me think.

Scientists at MIT's Institute of Brain Research asked either East Asian people or those raised in America or other Western cultures to solve two different types of problems: one set involved making objective judgements, and one involved making subjective judgements. The researchers hypothesized that people from East Asia -- whose culture emphasizes working together and "taking one for the team" -- would do better at making subjective judgements. Americans, on the other hand, who are taught to value independence, would do better at making objective judgements.

And all evidence points to that hypothesis being true.

The point of this research isn't just that people from different cultures are better at solving different problems. That doesn't seem particularly earth shattering . Indeed, the significance of the research was that the brains of the participants actually functioned differently.

Culture, then, can rewire your brain .

This study didn't examine food or body image in the slightest, so I don't want to make too many conclusions. Yet, if culture can alter brain function, it makes me wonder: how does living in a food-phobic, diet- philic culture change the way we think?

Some of the ways it changes our thinking seems less permanent. We're more willing to tolerate, even encourage, too low of a body weight, even in a recovering anorexic. A large child seems to reflect poorly on a parent.* And while most parents don't want a malnourished child, many parents and physicians are willing to settle on a low body weight.

Not only that, but we get used to seeing people- women and men- who have unrealistic body shapes and sizes. So while we may tell ourselves that "most women don't look like that," we become used to seeing it. And so it may take longer for people to recognize there is a problem.

Everyone is dieting, we say. Body obsession is normal. He'll snap out of it. She just wants to look like insert-name-of-latest-celebrity-basket-case-here. We see pictures of people who are anorexic all the time.

I also think people are re-trained as to what is an acceptable amount of food for a person to eat. Jokes abound as to how much a teenage boy needs to eat. A teen girl may need less than a teen boy (on average), but her needs, too, go up. Dieting puts her at risk for iron deficiencies and lower IQs .

Even now, my nutritional needs are far greater than most of the people around me. It's hard to deal with. But maybe I don't eat huge amounts. Maybe a lot of the people around me aren't eating enough. Maybe no one knows what a proper meal is.

Kind of makes you think.

*Granted, most therapists think the parents of an anorexic child are somehow flawed as well. Kind of a no-win situation, no?
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