“Seeing shouldn’t always be believing”: Reflections

Back in May, I bookmarked a piece that I wanted to make sure that I read in the New Scientist. Claire Wilson wrote ‘Our brains prefer invented visual information to the real thing‘ (opens in new window).

I’d encourage you to read it for yourself but, in essence, the thrust of the piece furthered something we’ve known for a while: the brain ‘fills in’ blind spots that the eyes cannot perceive. It completes any blanks with data cribbed from past experience or made up at the point of perception to form a comprehensible whole. This brief article reports on some findings that suggest that it goes farther than this. It posits that we actually prefer the parts that we ‘fill-in’ or ‘make up’: “The brain trusts its own generated information more than what it sees outside in the world.” 

I find this fascinating – not because I’m about to jump ship, ditch researching male eating disorders and begin studying the effects of cognitive bias etc. Rather, it’s an intellectual leap I’d like to share with you. When I originally scanned the article it made me think what a highly appropriate analogy this is for eating disordered thinking.

When I read males accounts of their experiences with disordered eating, there is a strong sense that there is a battle between what they feel is their ‘self’ and an ‘eating disordered self’. The self can ascertain some potentially objective facts – about their bodies, their eating habits, their subterfuge and mendacity. These things are not beyond the comprehension of the man. The man has many a lucid moment when he is acutely aware of ‘facts’ he may see or be told by others (unless, of course, he is also experiencing Body Dysmorphic Disorder, where the perceptual experience of one’s physical self is intrinsically distorted or micro-obsessively focused).

However, the eating disordered self is filling in gaps, like some sort of twisted Polyfilla™ – trying to hold things together by filling in the cracks but in the process of doing so it perpetuates a host of false precepts. In the words of Ehinger et al. (2017), these ‘fill-ins’ are “unreliable” not “veridical” – yet our brains prefer them. They hold onto and nurture these false images and ideas that our eating disordered self has constructed. Indeed, we come to ‘like’ them more. They are more familiar and fuel our scripts that play on a loop, they feel congruent with what believe is the evidence that we have accrued over the years about the way we look, the worth we ‘know’ we have (or have not, more appropriately).

We are drawn time and again to these perceptions. We believe they are representative of what we ‘see’. They are entirely representative of our view. But these perceptions are the bits that our brain made up to get us through unutterably difficult times when the foundation of our identities were being attacked and corroded. Let me expose some of mine (there are tonnes, so this is the merest sample):

  • I can’t be taken seriously in my work because I’m fat and ugly, and only objectively attractive people deserve to be professionally successful;
  • If I don’t eat all of this tonight, the day as had nothing good in it;
  • I am the fattest person I know and everyone knows it;
  • There’s nothing good in my life, except for being able to eat at the end of the day (this one is really bad, highly damaging and utter nonsense – there are so many things that are positive in my life! Yet, it remains and ‘automatic thought’);
  • I’m undervalued as a both a friend and an employee because that’s exactly what I deserve no matter how hard I work;
  • Even when I was thin, I was still ugly and that’s why no-one loved me;
  • When I make the merest mistake (for example, forget to buy something from my shopping list and only realise once I get home), all of my self talk happens, seemingly, in nano-seconds and it involves: “you fucking stupid idiot, this is exactly why you deserve to be at overlooked”;
  • Even heinous people who abuse, maim and kill seem to have people who love them, deem them to be special and want to spend their lives with them: what does that say about the fact that no-one wants to share their life with me?

Pretty toxic, no? And grossly, unnecessarily extreme and cruel. Yet I’m not alone in these thoughts. Many of the men’s stories that I have read have variations of all of these – and many more.

But we cling to them, struggle to give them up and turn to them as ‘reasonable’ explanations as to why we deserve everything we get when others don’t. We favour these unreliable precepts that our eating disordered brain has created and fostered, no matter how much there is an alternative, objective, milder and more likely ‘truth’.

What we see of ourselves shouldn’t always be believed. What we need is plentiful, unlimited, and immediate access to treatments that allow us to reconnect with veridical, rather than constructed, percepts.