Does This Brain Make Me Look Thin?

How many Americans get tricked into thinking they’re skinnier than they really are

We’ve all heard about the obesity epidemic in the United States, about how the number of overweight people in our country is rising year after year, about how we’re the heaviest country in the world and need to slim down our waistlines across the board. But how many overweight Americans truly recognize themselves as a part of those statistics? New studies show that many overweight or obese people have a tendency to believe they’re skinnier than they are, and are in a constant state of weight denial. Whether you’re considering surgery for lap band in Ypsilanti or simply curious about your own perceptions, your brain could be tricking you into thinking your weight is more average than it really is.

Cognitive Calibration

In a recent study, researchers asked 3,622 young men and women to estimate their own body sizes, choosing from categories that ranged from underweight to obese. Those who were of average weight chose correctly about 80 percent of the time while those who were overweight chose correctly only 58 percent of the time. Only 10 percent of obese subjects were capable of accurately selecting their body size.

Why does this happen? Are people just too embarrassed to admit their true weight to researchers? Though that could have something to do with it, scientists believe the cause could also be something in the posterior parietal cortex, the part of the brain that forms our body images out of combined signals from all of our senses. Our bodies change constantly over time, forcing the brain to adjust how we perceive ourselves on a regular basis. Because our brains are, of course, not infallible, this internal calibration can sometimes get off-whack, resulting in an inconsistent body image for people with body issues. This especially applies to people who suffer from eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, but can go for obese people as well.

The Perspective Problem

Perspective is another likely contributor to this discrepancy. A study of children with a comparable concept to the one described above achieved similar results, but researchers also found that the children with the heaviest parents or friends were more likely to underestimate their own weight than children with parents and friends of average weight. This makes sense—if we constantly see others around us who are as heavy as or heavier than we are, our own weight will seem normal by comparison.

But this puts us at risk of falling into a dangerous cycle. An estimated two thirds of American adults are overweight, and those numbers are rising every year. If, in future generations, every single person is overweight, will anyone really know it? Our brains’ misperceptions could be turning obesity into the new norm without us even realizing it.


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