Laugh, Cry, Live

Pondering the emotional side of life, beginning to end.

Protect Your Brain from Images of Violence and Cruelty

Compelling reasons to boycott violent media and video games.

Last week, a friend posted a link to “amazing, emotional photographs.” I assumed I was in for a real treat of evocative, inspiring images. Instead, much to my horror, most of the photographs displayed terrible acts of human cruelty. Yes, there were some positive images peppered throughout (alas, I kept thinking beauty would reign), but I was left distraught, some of the images burned into my brain. Only the passage of time will quell the burn, along with the self-soothing mantra “It’s not me. I’m safe.” I’m also reminding myself that the vast majority of human behavior is kind, generous, and loving. Otherwise, our species wouldn’t have survived this long.

But what burns me more than anything is that someone would package these photographs together, and that others would share them. Sure, some images were taken by professional journalists on the job, but most disturbing were the amateur snapshots taken by sadistic murderers. Trying to horrify us? Not cool. Demoralize us? Done. Perpetuate cruelty? Not okay!

Do these horrifying images inspire us to do better? Photographs can spur social awareness and progress. But this offending package of images revisits events that happened decades ago, in foreign lands, during war, or under exceptionally rare circumstances. The empathic viewer is left distressed and helpless to undo the suffering that was endured.  As such, viewing these images inflicts trauma.

What we must do better is push for more sensitivity with regard to displaying, viewing, and sharing violent images, including the news, documentaries, fictional TV shows and films, and video games. We already regard blatantly sexual images as vulgar and sharing them as bad-mannered, so why don’t we hold a similar standard for blatantly violent images?

Here’s what we know about the effects of exposure to violence:

  1. Whether the violence is real, reenacted based on real events, or fiction, when you witness cruelty and empathize with the victim, you experience the trauma vicariously. That’s why witnesses to violence are considered victims too. It is especially traumatizing to witness cruelty when you are powerless to prevent it.
  2. People exposed to violence don’t always empathize with the victim. Sometimes they side with the aggressor, which can compel them to behave aggressively themselves. Siding with the aggressor is a common reaction when viewing fictional violence, which is made more palatable by showing the hero as an aggressive victor. Siding with the aggressor doesn’t always lead to mass murder, but the link between aggressive behavior and exposure to this kind of violence is well-documented. In fact, scholars consider this link to be on par with the correlation of lung cancer and exposure to secondhand smoke. The next time you watch a movie where the hero punches and shoots his way through the plot, notice, as you leave the theatre, how inspired you are to kick some butt from here to the moon. This doesn’t mean you will, but having watched it, it’s now part of your repertoire. (Read here why Jim Carey is distancing himself from his latest superhero film, due to graphic violence.)
  3. Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of exposure to violence in the home, the community, and the media. Effects include reduced sensitivity toward others, being more fearful, and behaving more aggressively. In a recent study, adolescents who had high exposure to violence in the media and video games, besides behaving more aggressively, also showed reduced levels of cognitive brain function, meaning that the parts of the brains involved in thinking, learning, reasoning, and emotional control were less active than in adolescents who had lower exposure to violence. Children also tend to exhibit long term effects into adulthood, with highly aggressive children more likely to become violent criminals.
  4. Children and adolescents are also especially vulnerable because they typically do not have the broad world view or self-soothing skills necessary to cope with the distress induced by witnessing violence and cruelty. And they may not get the support they need from adults. (Read about how to support affected kids, links to resources, and school-based intervention.)
  5. What about people who are dealing with troubled brains and are fascinated by violent images? Copycat crimes are a known phenomenon. Indeed, the Sandy Hook gunman had saved several newspaper clippings about the Norwegian who, the previous year, had also massacred a large group of young people. The current wave of shootings occurring almost a year to the day of Sandy Hook may be an epidemic anniversary reaction by distraught and desperate folks.

Here’s what we know about how people’s brains are affected by exposure to violence:

  1. Our brains are soft-wired with mirror neurons, which allow us to observe, empathize, and imitate. When a tiny infant observes you sticking out your tongue, mirror neurons enable her to imitate and stick out her tongue.  After you watch professional athletes play your favorite sport, mirror neurons can enable you to emulate the professionals’ greater power and accuracy. When you’re at a public event and there is a swell of emotion from the crowd, mirror neurons enable you to empathize and can make you cheer, scream, or cry too. It’s as if behaviors and expressions of feeling are contagious.
  2. Most of the time, these mirror neurons benefit us. Observation is an efficient way of acquiring –and spreading-- language, knowledge, skills, and mannerisms. Mirror neurons can compel your children to do what you do instead of what you merely say. In essence, mirror neurons form the basis of emotional connection, culture, and community. The resulting social bonds improve our chances of survival, as we’re more likely to perish if isolated.
  3. Unfortunately, mirror neurons don’t confine our learning to respectful actions, nor do they protect us from destructively expressing emotions or imitating hurtful behaviors. Mirror neurons enable children to emulate the violence they witness in life, media, and video games. And mirror neurons can enable folks who are enraged with the world to emulate how others express their rage, making violent imagery so potentially dangerous.


What to do?

Perhaps we can learn from the editorial decision followed by the Newtown, Connecticut local newspaper after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Curtiss Clark, the long-time editor of The Bee, worried that coverage of the shooter’s life, his downward spiral, his apparent motives, and his method would encourage other men to follow in his footsteps. Quoted in The New Yorker, he says, “It’s not that so many men commit these acts, but the press follows them down the path, making it wider. It forecloses other outlets for anger.” In other words, let’s not poison our mirror neurons.

As our society becomes more intent on addressing mental illness and nurturing brain health, each of us can play a vital role by refusing to drink the poison. Don’t view or share violent images, stories, TV shows, films, or video games. Don’t censor-- boycott. Be mindful of how witnessing violence and cruelty influences the human brain, and especially protect the developing brains of youth. I invite you to become a part of the village it takes to stop exposing our brains to violence and cruelty, and imagine a world brimming with respect, kindness, and compassion.


The Curtiss Clark quote is taken from Rachel Aviv’s article, Local Story: A local newspaper covers a national tragedy. The New Yorker, March 4, 2013, pp.24-9. 

Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and author of 6 books, including one about perinatal hospice titled A Gift of Time.

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