Eating disorders and the extreme female brain

Eating disorders and the extreme female brain

Research by evolutionary psychologists Jennifer Bremser at Alfred State College and Gordon Gallup from the University at Albany, implicates eating disorders as a byproduct of evolved differences between male and female brains.

There is growing evidence that the brains of men and women evolved to process information in different ways. The cognitive advantage women have for empathizing and making inferences about what other people know, want, or intend to do, may contribute to their superior communication and language skills. Individual differences in these abilities are related to underlying levels of certain sex hormones. Those at the upper end of the distribution are characterized as having extreme female brains.

Consistent with this analysis, eating disorders are more common among women than men and elevated testosterone in both sexes appears to protect against the development of eating disorders. Bremser and Gallup found that both male and female college students who scored higher on measures of empathizing and negative evaluation anxiety (both indicators of extreme female brains) were more prone to suffer from disordered eating. These results suggest that the intense fear of becoming fat shown by many people with eating disorders may not actually be a fear of fat, but rather a fear of being evaluated disparagingly by others. The authors also theorize that the well documented relationship between vegetarianism and eating disorders may be due to common underlying concerns that high empathizing women have about animal welfare.

This research appeared recently in the online journal Evolutionary Psychology in an article entitled “From one extreme to the other: Negative evaluation anxiety and disordered eating as candidates for the extreme female brain.” The paper can be accessed at: http://www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/EP10457486.pdf

What I find interesting about this piece of research is that it provides an explanation rooted in evolutionary psychology, as well as human biodiversity (between the sexes), that makes a lot more sense than typical feminist/cultural explanations. Eating disorders are far more common among women than men, and homosexual men have a rate of eating disorders about three times higher than heterosexual men. regarding homosexuals and these disorders, this explanation seems as if it could go some way towards explaining (or confirming, I’m not sure of the state of the science) just what is different about male homosexual brains.

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3 comments
Anonymous says September 12, 2012

These results suggest that the intense fear of becoming fat shown by many people with eating disorders may not actually be a fear of fat, but rather a fear of being evaluated disparagingly by others.

Interesting.

Social phobia has crossover metrics with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. What may present as an eating disorder is actually a product of an anxiety disorder.

The various anxiety disorders manifest themselves in varying ways, perhaps women with the disorder are prone to exhibiting it with a change to eating patterns.

It would be valuable to know the sex breakdown of the various types of anxiety disorders and how they are manifested.

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    Pat Hannagan says September 12, 2012

    Woops, that was me.

    Reply
Pierre says October 3, 2014

Interestingly, a few studies seem to be indicating the opposite – just google anorexia and autism.

some people have proposed that anorexia is a sort of ‘female variant’ of autism, so both theories may be right in that anorexia is a sort of combination of traits indicating autism that is mediated or protected by extreme femaleness in other areas.

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