The following article discusses a study in which virtual food was shown to elicit the same emotional and physiological responses in anorexics and bulimics as real food.
This shows researchers that virtual food can be used in the evaluation and treatment of eating disorders. I believe this study teaches an additional lesson. That is: those with eating disorders are being ruled by the “unthinking” parts of the brain – the parts of the brain that react automatically and don’t rationalize. This is not to say those with eating disorders are not intelligent, because they certainly are very intelligent people; but without knowing it, they allow an automatic, unthinking voice that produces irrational responses to control their actions. The fact that the brain reacts even to virtual food shows that this voice and the involuntary physiological and emotional responses are not under the Ed patients’ conscious control.
However, what is always under ED patients’ control is their actions. Perhaps virtual food could be used to teach this important lesson – that no matter what the brain generates automatically and irrationally, ED patients can direct their own behavior. Perhaps ED patients could practice experiencing the uncomfortable brain reactions in the presence of “safe” virtual food, realizing that those brain reactions don’t need to control their actions. Then, when ED patients feel confident, they could move on to real food. The amazing part is: by disregarding the brain’s automatic reactions and willfully directing actions over and over, it changes the brain so that it no longer produces harmful physiological and emotional reactions around food.