When casting our eyes upon an object, our brains either perceive it in its entirety or as a collection of its parts. Consider, for instance, photo mosaics consisting of hundreds of tiny pictures that when arranged a certain way form a larger overall image: In fact, it takes two separate mental functions to see the mosaic from both perspectives. A new study suggests that these two distinct cognitive processes also are in play with our basic physical perceptions of men and women — and, importantly, provides clues as to why women are often the targets of sexual objectification.

The research, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, found in a series of experiments that participants processed images of men and women in very different ways. When presented with images of men, perceivers tended to rely more on “global” cognitive processing, the mental method in which a person is perceived as a whole. Meanwhile, images of women were more often the subject of “local” cognitive processing, or the objectifying perception of something as an assemblage of its various parts. The study is the first to link such cognitive processes to objectification theory, said Sarah Gervais, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the study’s lead author. [Read more: sciencedaily]

I need to read this article in full but it seems that the researchers didn’t take account of the processes that facilitate these sorts of perceptions about, and ways of looking at, men and women’s bodies (e.g. gendered advertising practices, top-shelf magazines). These variables could offer an important explanation of the results (and, if they’re controlled for in the study, potentially more complex results).