They want our brains!!!
Zombies? No, obesity doctors.
You read that right. Though they want in our brains, rather than eating them up. But part of me thinks they’d eat our brains if it’d “cure our obesity”—after all, it’s for our health!
On Tuesday Nightline covered a story about a woman, Carol, who agreed to be the second person in the U.S. to undergo “the most radical treatment ever devised for obesity,” a treatment called Deep Brain Stimulation. Basically, surgeons drill into her brain and carefully poke around, sending electric currents into her brain until they identify the part that controls her hunger, feeling of satiation, etc. And then they implant “two brain pacemakers” into her chest that will send those same electric currents to her brain. TWO!!! The currents are supposed to keep her, it seems, feeling full enough—meaning they are sending volts into her brain to simulate a feeling “just below [the] threshold of nausea.” According to one surgeon, this will “readjust her weight thermostat so that she can metabolize better and potentially eat less, if that’s what it takes.” Eventually they will have to dial it up a notch to keep her feeling full.
I respect this woman’s right to do this, but I do not respect the doctors/researchers’ endeavor to perform it, nor am I very satisfied with Nightline’s coverage. Martin Bashir doesn’t ask the tough questions, evaluate the risks of this radical procedure or the assumptions it’s based on, or even present more than a flittering critical thought throughout this report. It’s not that Bashir seems all that gung-ho about it, but in the end it is just another booga-booga-OMGtehFats puff piece, rather than an investigative report.
I tend to be long-winded, so I decided to at least organize my long-windedness and post a list of my objections...off the top of my head.
1. The contention that “obesity is the most painful problem in the world.” Now, I took that out of context. The actual quote is, “For Carol Poe, obesity is the most painful problem in the world.” If she said this and she feels it’s her biggest problem, I feel really bad for her and what she must go through...not that she’d be the only one who thinks being fat is The_Worst_Thing_Evar ™. We all know that people would rather die than be obeeeeese (or “overweight” or even a little fat); fatness is many people’s greatest fear. But this segment only reinforces the idea that it’s the worst thing that could happen to a person and that we should all be very, very afraid of the fats. The same news show would likely do a story on how young girls are so afraid of fat and not see the connection between girls’ fear of fat and their own reporting.
2. The doctors’ treatment of “obesity” as though fatness is a disease like Parkinson’s. Fatness is not a disease, people. Yet doctors think that since Deep Brain Stimulation worked on Parkinson’s (not sure how accurate that is) they can and should save the world from fat people—and fat people from themselves—using DBS.
3. That’s right, we can’t control ourselves, so they’ve gotta go into our brains and do it themselves. See how much work we make them do? If this procedure “works” (whatever that means), there may be a time when any “obese” person who doesn’t subject themselves to DBS and “brain pacemakers” will be seen as both socially and personally irresponsible. If so, at the same time we will still be lamented for our inability to control ourselves of our insatiable need for instant gratification. A judgment all based on weight.
4. The “Fat Carol” to “Ideal Carol” digital transformation. Really? Like fat people don’t see enough of this on weight loss commercials. The fact that “before” and “after” pictures have become a staple in our culture is evidence that we have some real problems. When we set up any kind of “ideal” body shape/size, we have a problem.
5. This segment addresses nothing about health. No mention of measures of her health before or after. No mention of health other than the cursory mention of her mental health/anguish regarding her fatness and the implication that she is a compulsive eater paired the idea that her compulsive eating is what’s at the root of her “fat problem.” After all, they wouldn’t need in our brains if we could control ourselves. You wanna bet people still come away form the segment assuming this will improve her health? What happens if this woman actually ends up malnourished? This implant is manipulating signals sent to her brain about what her body needs; it completely suppresses any chance she would have of listening to her bodily cues regarding hunger and nourishment.
6. According to the segment, this woman is 230lbs. I think a simple WTF covers this.
7. Surgeon guy: “For some it may seem radical that electrodes should be put in the brain, that someone should be doing brain surgery for obesity. But I think we’ve gotten through that.”
Me: Uh, no we have NOT.
8. This is not scientific, at least not in the sense that we can deduce anything whatsoever. (Though the fact that they know so much about the brain is pretty friggin cool, if scary.) There is no control group. She’s just one woman, and she’s doing things in addition to getting the DBS implants that might affect the outcome. Not to mention the possible placebo effects of something as serious as brain surgery. And on top of all this, we have just seen a snapshot of her experience. We in no way know what the future holds for her or whether eating less would make her thin or even “overweight.” And yet people will assume. And we will continue to suffer from their poor assumptions because when you are addressing OMGtehFatness you don't have to think critically, ask tough questions or give an accurate portrayal of risks and benefits.
Finally, I have been really trying to create “action steps” lately...but on this one I am not seeing a clear path. I did tweet Nightline a piece or two of my mind, not that they paid any attention. Maybe we should suggest that Nightline do a segment on weight discrimination and prejudice in health care and the real health consequences of both, or a segment on HAES. Any suggestions?
More info on this from Sandy Szwarc at Junkfood Science