Visual Perception and Body Dysmorphia: Social Media and Brain Mechanisms

Research from a recent study out of Macquaire University has demonstrated that visual comparisons of body image have the ability to physically adapt our brain’s visual perception. After such an adaptation, we are more likely to overestimate our own body size and perceive a thinner body type as ‘normal.’ The research has identified a psychological pathway that may put individuals at greater risk of developing conditions such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and muscle dysmorphia. “When presented with images of thin and fat bodies at the same time, our study found that people who are less satisfied with their bodies tend to look longer and more often at thin compared to fat bodies,” said Dr. Ian Stephen from Macquarie University, the lead author on the study.

Depending on the amount of time a person spends looking at a desired body type, brain mechanisms will normalize this body type as the ‘normal’ through a process called “visual adaptation.” To complete this experiment, individuals were exposed to both thin and heavy body types on an app. After the viewing segment was completed, the research participants were then asked to alter body types to represent ‘normal’ in a specially designed app. Those who paid more attention to the thinner bodies during the exposure period altered the bodies to a thinner frame than they did before their exposure period. Naturally, there are many dangers associated with viewing an average sized body and perceiving it as fat, especially in a society that has placed such a high value on media and media imagery. Senior author Kevin Brooks writes “gazing at thin bodies for as little as two minutes causes a recalibration of the mechanisms in our brain that encode body fatness. Then, when we see an average sized body, we perceive it as fat.”

These reports should compel us to evaluate the visuals we are exposing ourselves to, and why.  Let’s review what we know. We know that those who spend more time looking at certain body types will speed up their adaptation process and increase the likelihood that they will misperceive physical forms and develop a disorder. We know that on average, teens (and many adults) today spend 7-10 hours per day on social media platforms.. When we take into account recent news stories that have highlighted social media models and influencers who report having developed depression, anxiety or eating disorders as a result of intense pressure to maintain an unrealistic image of perfection for their viewers, it is easy to see how this becomes a dangerous cycle.

Model/Influencer Alexis Ren described the development of her eating disorder in a Cosmopolitan magazine feature.  She writes “I was my worst critic ever. The only sense of relief I had was to be able to monitor my eating and my workouts… Everyone around me was like, ‘Alexis, what are you doing?’” she says. “But I felt like my body was the only reason why people liked me.” As Alexis fell deeper into the throes of an eating disorder, viewers of her page were largely unaware that the “desirable” physique before them was one of an individual with an eating disorder. While visual adaptation is not a lone factor in the development of an eating disorder (we already know about the social, emotional and biological components to these diagnoses) we may now know more about the perceptual mechanisms that drive the development of an eating disorder. With this understanding, perhaps we can better educate our media-soaked youth about the dangers of screen time, comparison-making and identifying with an unrealistic ideal of beauty.

We must take the time to remind ourselves that the images we are viewing on our screens do not represent the whole truth.  Now that we are armed with this knowledge, we can choose to surround ourselves with positive, healthy imagery and better protect our sense of self. For more information about eating disorder treatment and recovery visit us at