Tuesday 22 November 2011

'There is absolutely nothing in our study to support these kinds of conclusions'

'Looking at Page 3 makes you brainy' claimed the Sun on Monday:

The article by Emily Fairbairn - which includes one picture and two videos - begins:

Admiring The Sun's Page 3 lovelies can speed up your mental reactions, scientists say.

So Page 3 can make you 'brainy' and 'speed up your mental reactions'? Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?

In fact, the scientists didn't look at Page 3 or whether looking at naked people made people brainier:

Recent event-related potential studies have shown that the occipitotemporal N170 component - best known for its sensitivity to faces - is also sensitive to perception of human bodies...

In two experiments, we measured N170 responses to nude bodies, bodies wearing swimsuits, clothed bodies, faces, and control stimuli (cars). We found that the N170 amplitude was larger to opposite and same-sex nude vs. clothed bodies...

We conclude that the early visual processing of human bodies is sensitive to the visibility of the sex-related features of human bodies and that the visual processing of other people's nude bodies is enhanced in the brain.

This blog emailed one of the researchers, Jari Hietanen from the University of Tampere, to ask for his response to the Sun's article (he said: "thanks for your e-mail. Nice to see that there are people who read what we really reported").

The paper wrote:

"And their results showed that it takes less than 0.2 seconds to process the image of a naked body — much less than when models are fully clothed or wearing swimsuits."

Jari says:

No, we didn't say this. All these stimulus categories produced a certain brain response roughly at the same latency...The important finding was that this brain response was larger for nude vs. swimsuit vs. clothed bodies.

So what about the Sun's claim that:

"The team's findings are good news for advertisers who use scantily-clad stunners to boost sales."

Jari replies:

I find it difficult to make this conclusion. If we had shown that nude bodies attract visual attention more efficiently than clothed bodies, then perhaps this sort of interpretation would have been justified. By the way, there are studies by other research groups which have shown this.

And how does Jari respond to the overall thrust of the Sun's piece - that his study suggests looking at Page 3 makes you 'brainy' and 'can speed up your mental reactions'?

This is the worst...There is absolutely nothing in our study to support these kinds of conclusions. We recorded brain responses (not mental reactions) which reflect how the visual system of the brain works.

These results showed that, at certain pretty early levels of processing (the visual processing is considered to form a "hierarchy" of different processing levels) nude bodies are processed more efficiently than clothed bodies. 

(Many thanks to Jari for his reply.)


  1. Another reason for me to hate the Sun A scientist dies every time a tabloid uses 'scientific research' to back one of their hare-brained ideas.

  2. I always wondered what made Sun readers so intellectually advanced.


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