Brain, Body, Perception Somatomap
Somatomap is a set of digital, visually-based tools to measure body perception (Somatomap 3D) and body image concerns (Somatomap 2D) developed by Ralph-Nearman et al., (2019). Somatomap was originally created for clinicians who work with people with body image concerns, as well as for researchers. The idea for Somatomap arose from the idea that one’s perception of their own body, as well as specific concerns about the appearance of parts of their body, could best be represented with a visual tool rather than one that is based on, for example, written surveys. In addition, because body perception can be nuanced and could differ from body part to body part, a tool that has the flexibility to represent many different body part sizes and shapes independently would be ideal. In addition, it arose from an attempt to externally represent, and quantify, one’s internal body image, i.e. that arises when one imagines their body size and shape.
Somatomap 3D consists of a 3D avatar (see figure 1) that is created from scans of human volunteers. The avatar has 26 modifiable parts to it: e.g. the neck, shoulders, torso, bust, bicep, forearm, hands, hips, waist, buttocks, thighs, calves, and feet, and can be viewed from all angles. Participants are shown the avatar and are asked to freely manipulate the size of its body parts, using sliders that move through two extremes, to create an image of what their bodies look like to them. In addition, participants can create a separate body that could represent their ideal body size and shape.
Separately from that, research assistants measure participants’ actual body parts using a measuring tape.
Figure 1: An illustration of a 3D avatar in somatomap. Participants use sliders (left side) to increase or decrease the size of various body parts.
In order to determine the accuracy of participants' perceptions of themselves, researchers compare each participant’s perceived size as indicated by their avatar to the participant's actual body size, as obtained by objective measures. The magnitude of the difference between perceived and actual will correspond to the extent of body image distortion. Further, the difference between one’s current body and one’s ideal body can be quantified and the specific regions and body parts that contribute to this can be examined. It can also be used, in conjunction with brain imaging and brain electrophysiology, to understand how the brain produces one’s internal body image and what may make it more or less accurate.
Somatomap can ultimately help researchers and clinicians determine how individuals with body dysmorphic disorder and body image concerns such as those with eating disorders view themselves, so that they can help them (Ralph-Nearman et al., 2021). Indeed, the million dollar question is why individuals with body dysmorphic disorder and/or eating disorders see themselves as “fat” or “ugly” when they aren't. When a sufferer says that about themselves, we wonder what it is they see. Finding an answer to the question is of crucial importance because of the high degree of suffering, disability, and even the death rates associated with these conditions.
Somatomap is a cutting-edge development in the field of neuroscience, and is a promising avenue for understanding body image disorders, which can lead to burden, living dysfunction, and an increased risk of death due to starvation.
Ralph-Nearman, C., Arevian, A. C., Puhl, M., Kumar, R., Villaroman, D., Suthana, N., Feusner,
J. D., & Khalsa, S. S. (2019). A novel mobile tool (Somatomap) to assess body image perception pilot tested with fashion models and nonmodels: Cross-sectional study. JMIR Mental Health, 6(10). https://doi.org/10.2196/14115
Ralph-Nearman, C., Arevian, A.C., Moseman, S. et al. Visual mapping of body image disturbance in anorexia nervosa reveals objective markers of illness severity. Sci Rep 11, 12262 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-90739-w