Psychologist wins €1.5m European research grant to study body image

Dr Matthew Longo will investigate how the brain constructs body image

A psychologist from Birkbeck has been awarded a prestigious European grant worth €1.5m to investigate how the brain constructs body image.

Dr Matthew Longo, a senior lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences, will use the latest techniques, including neuroimaging methods, to see how people build body representations as part of the five-year project. It is likely that several hundred people will be involved in the experiments during the research.

Funding for the scientific research is being provided by the European Research Council as part of its Starting Grant scheme, which supports up-and-coming research leaders.

Dr Longo said: “Several types of sensory signals provide information about the body, making the body the multisensory object par excellence. Little is known, however, about how information from the central and peripheral nervous system and from vision is integrated to construct the rich body representations we all experience. This project fills this gap in current understanding by determining how the brain builds body representations.”

Building body representations

The key hypothesis underpinning the research project, called Building body representations: an investigation of the formation and maintenance of body representations, is that body representation is determined by the integration of information from different sensory modalities. For example, neurons in the brain receiving tactile signals from the peripheral nerves each provide information about the state of a very small piece of the skin. By integrating across multiple neurons, progressively larger-scale representations of the body can be formed, a process called “fusion” by Dr Longo.  On the other hand, through vision we experience our body as an undifferentiated whole, which can then be progressively broken into smaller parts, a process called “segmentation” by Dr Longo. The key hypothesis of this project is that our rich perceptual experience of our body emerges from the complementary operations of fusion and segmentation.

Dr Longo added: “Body representation operates from the bottom-up as a process of fusion of primitive elements into larger complexes, as well as from the top-down as a process of segmentation of an initially undifferentiated whole into more basic parts. This project uses a combination of psychophysical, electrophysiological, and neuroimaging methods to provide fundamental insight into how we come to represent our body.”