My research has focused on the brain function of people who see themselves as incredibly ugly, even though they look normal. This problem is called Body Dysmorphic Disorder, which is a mental disorder that affects 1 or 2 people out of every 100. That’s five times the prevalence of anorexia!
Not liking the way we look is common, but imagine feeling you looked so wrong that you were too afraid to socialise or even leave your home. It might sound ridiculous but for victims of the mental disorder that I’ve devoted my research to it’s a daily reality.
Depending on the individual they might fixate on their nose, ears, lips or any other body part they think looks ugly. People with body dysmorphic disorder can look in the mirror for hours a day, up close, checking and re-checking.
I’ve met many brave individuals with the disorder who have told me their story and agreed to have their brain scanned in an MRI machine. We wanted to answer just two questions:
- Why do some people believe they are ugly or disfigured when they in fact look normal?
- More broadly, what makes people believe something that simply is not true?
Our brain research to date have shown us that people with body dysmorphic disorder don’t necessarily see something that is not there, but rather they emphasise and magnify slight imperfections in appearance and neglect other factors.
For example, have you ever seen a barely noticeable imperfection, but once you’ve noticed it, it just stands out? Maybe you’ve had a stain on a piece of clothing and when you look at it in the mirror it is all you can see? We all know what it is like to become stuck on a small, inconsequential detail and miss the bigger picture completely.
While studying people with mental illness is important, our research has wider implications for why people in society come to such different conclusions. Why is it that something that can be so blindingly obvious to one person is completely ignored by the next? Our research goes the core of perception and how our emotional brain can come to vastly different conclusions simply based on the deeply personal emotional responses.
For example, why do some people consider getting cosmetic surgery as an obvious path to improve their life, while for others it is the last thing on their mind? Do people really like Donald Trump for rational reasons, or so they like him on strong emotional grounds? The answers to these questions, and many more, lay within our deeply emotional brain.