If you’re honest with yourself, you may sometimes find it hard not to look at someone with a disability.
And while that may seem horribly impolite, USC research suggests that sometimes poor manners are not at play.
"There’s a stigma against staring at people with disabilities," says Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, an assistant professor at the USC Brain and Creativity Institute. "However, it might be extremely important to do so and it might be a way to understand and learn about them better."
Aziz-Zadeh and her colleagues measured brain activity of test subjects who first were shown short video clips of an able-bodied person picking up objects. During the videos, the participants' brain scans measured some activity in the region of the brain responsible for doing those tasks.
Next, the study participants watched equally short video clips of a woman born without arms doing the same tasks.
But this time, the participants' brain scans showed a flurry of activity as they watched the disabled woman work. What's more, researchers found, brain activity shifted into overdrive in those participants with the highest measures of natural empathy.
“So it seems like they’re using their own body representations to understand people with differences even more," Aziz-Zadeh says.
The research, which appears online in the journal NeuroImage, also found that as the study participants watched longer video clips of the disabled woman engaging in the tasks, their brain activity quieted to the same levels they displayed when they first watched the fully-functioning person.
Researchers say that finding suggests the opportunity to observe those with disabilities engenders better understanding of them.
"Exposure to people with disabilities is actually quite important because the more you become exposed and see people with disabilities the more you start to process them the same as you do other people who don’t have disabilities," she says.